'Leave No Trace' Stays With You Will (Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) live off the grid — until the authorities find them — in a grounded, sharply observed film from the director of Winter's Bone.


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'Leave No Trace' Stays With You

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The phrase leave no trace is often used to describe good behavior in national parks, meaning enjoy the scenery, and then leave the park exactly as pristine as you found it. The new movie "Leave No Trace" is about a father and daughter who take that notion further than most. Critic Bob Mondello says the film is about being on the run even when no one's in pursuit.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: As we come upon Will and his 13-year-old daughter Tom, they're collecting mushrooms and edible leaves, filtering rainwater, shaving sticks to start a fire.


THOMASIN MCKENZIE: (As Tom) Dad, this wood is really good for feathering.

MONDELLO: They are so isolated in this forest, so off the grid it seems miles and miles from civilization until...


MONDELLO: ...The sound of chainsaws.


MCKENZIE: (As Tom) It's OK. It's a work crew. I saw them earlier. They're down by the pathways.

MONDELLO: Will decides this is a teachable moment.


BEN FOSTER: (As Will) Drill.

MONDELLO: They drop everything, head from their campsite into the underbrush and in seconds are invisible - not their first drill clearly. Tom's pretty much grown up in these woods near Portland, Ore. The thing is, she's been seen. And a bit later when they hear dogs, it's clear that sighting has been reported.


FOSTER: (As Will) It's not a drill.

MONDELLO: Director Debra Granik is adapting a Peter Rock novel called "My Abandonment," a story told from the point of view of its 13-year-old heroine. And the film maintains that focus. It shows us Tom's distress when social services get involved. Even with the best intentions, they disrupt what has been for her a stable, if isolated, existence.


DANA MILLICAN: (As Jean) Who taught you how to read?

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) My dad teaches me.

MILLICAN: (As Jean) You're actually quite a bit ahead of where you need to be. Was your dad in the service?

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) He was.

MILLICAN: (As Jean) Do you feel safe living with your dad?

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) We didn't need to be rescued.

MILLICAN: (As Jean) Your dad needs to provide you shelter and a place to live.

MCKENZIE: (As Tom) He did.

MONDELLO: Will, though, has not just been taking them on an extended camping trip, as becomes clear when he undergoes psychological testing.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's 435 questions. Respond true or false to each question.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I wake up rested and peaceful most mornings.

FOSTER: (As Will) True.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: My day-to-day life is full of things that keep me interested.

FOSTER: (As Will) True.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I have nightmares or troubling dreams.

MONDELLO: Also true but harder for Will to talk about. The authorities, compassionate and sensitive, do their best to provide support while leaving these two alone, a strategy father and daughter take differently to, Dad being broken, his child not. Played warily by a grizzled Ben Foster, Will watches and waits, never giving away his feelings. Thomasin McKenzie gives the daughter a riveting stillness that thaws into adolescence as she encounters pet rabbits, beehives, a boy. A split was perhaps coming regardless. Biology would see to that.

But the filmmaker creates often without words a portrait of a relationship that is grounded and solid even when father doesn't know best. "Leave No Trace" treads softly, breaking not a twig. But, boy, do you know it's been there. I'm Bob Mondello.

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