ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No.7: Leave No Trace

Year: 2018

Runtime: 109 Minutes

Director: Debra Granik

Writer: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (Based on “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock)

Stars: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Ayanna Berkshire

Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” Feels the Heavy Restraints of Modern Civilization

By Jossalyn Holbert

I had the unique privilege of reading My Abandonment in Pete Rock’s creative nonfiction class during my junior year at Reed College, a tiny, liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. I already knew that I wanted to write a creative thesis my senior year, but I had not yet taken a creative writing class (oops). Pete was kind enough to take a chance on me, accepting me into his mostly full upper-level course. It was in this course that we read a vast array of creative nonfiction, a unique genre that Pete capped off with one of his own works.

The writing of My Abandonment is solid, of course, the story of a weathered Iraq war verteran and his thirteen-year-old daughter imbued with the rough Oregon life that I myself had been growing accustomed to for the past two and a half years. I discovered long after reading My Abandonment that Debra Granik was filming a movie adaptation, and I did a little internal happy dance, eager to see this novel transported to the big screen.

What She Said:

“In essence, Leave No Trace, reinforces why independent filmmaking continues to capture what mainstream films often cannot–human nature exposed to the elements.”

Wendy Shreve, Featuring Film

Granik’s “Leave No Trace” highlights the natural beauty and verdant imagery of rural Oregon, its dramatic wildlife and essential details, down the smallest spider web, on full display. This location is where Will (Ben Foster) and his young daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), make their home.


Portland is a more than appropriate place for a film about being (technically, more on that later) unhoused. Besides being Pete Rock’s stomping grounds (and mine for four years), it is also a location of widespread homelessness. Bridges, parks, highways, in the city and beyond, contain more homeless encampments that the housed population would like to admit, the occupants of these encampments in various states of distress.

Tom and Will live in a public Oregon park, selling Will’s VA-distributed medications to other homeless folks to make a meager living. Will suffers from PTSD after his stint in the war, and a newspaper article lets Tom and the audience know that his unit was riddled with suicides, leaving his mental health in question. It is abundantly clear that Will never felt quite at home in the city, much preferring the vagrant lifestyle that he places himself and Tom in.

When park rangers discover Will and Tom in the woods, the two must transplant to a more urban living situation (though still in the outskirts of modern life), on a pine tree farm owned by Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober).


Will is not equipped, thanks to his PTSD, to participate in society in the ways others do, and the audience feels some of the tension he experiences while living and working under someone else’s watchful eye. He is not satisfied here, restless under a roof and willing to sleep outside when Tom suggests it. Granik does a masterful job of demonstrating the constraints on Will through her camera movements, contrasting the openness of the wilderness with tense shots while inside houses and buildings.

What She Said:

“Leave No Trace is a powerful and devastating call for help for ill veterans, a love letter to nature and familial love. Mackenzie is effortlessly lifelike in a stunning, delicate performance and Foster is as usual, stellar and dominant.”

Anne Brodie, What She Said

Even though others deem Will and Tom as homeless, the Oregon park is their home, and Will feels no choice other than to return to living outside the bounds of what most would consider typical life. The wilderness is sometimes harsh and unforgiving, of course, as we see when Tom cannot withstand the cold or when Will hurts his foot, but it is home to him. In a sense, modern society is just as harsh, squeezing the life out of Will, a boa constrictor around his neck, until there is nothing left.


It is important to note that Tom eventually disagrees with Will about where she wants to live, deciding to stay behind in an RV park that they have escaped to when Will gets hurt. She sees the value in community, and she says goodbye to her father, leaving him food and supplies every so often.

What She Said:

“With genuine performances and artistically skilled direction and cinematography, we are brought into their world, experiencing their every thought and emotion and ultimately leaving us breathless and awestruck.”

Pamela Powell, FF2 Media

I was happy to see Pete’s work transformed into film, by a female director and screenwriter no less (Anne Rosellini). Granik’s narrative choices portray something so important, and that is that we have no choice but to live our lives according to what our hearts tell us.

I also want to highlight Thomasin McKenzie, who made her debut in this movie as thirteen-year-old Tom. She is quickly emerging on the scene in Hollywood, following this performance up with her role as Elsa in Taika Waititi’s “JoJo Rabbit.” She brings a uniquely soft spoken persona to the screen, and I believe that she has a bright acting career ahead of her, however she decides to tackle it.

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

iTunes: Buy

Google Play: Buy

YouTube: Buy

Who to follow:

Official Twitter: @LeaveNoTraceMov

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