Leave No Trace: Excellent Drama on PTSD Affecting Family Life

Leave No Trace the 2018 film

Here’s a critically acclaimed 2018 independent drama from director Debra Granik. It stars Ben Foster and young New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie.

Its compassionate and methodical approach to dealing with PTSD is highly commendable, with two fantastic lead performances to make for something of a modern classic.

PTSD and Coming of Age in Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is about Iraq War military veteran Will (Ben Foster), who’s illegally living in an old growth Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, with his 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie).

To note, the film is adapted from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment (2009), which is based on a true story.

How the film portrays PTSD is different to other films about this topic, most notably with the likes of The Deer Hunter (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976).

It’s more of a show don’t tell approach, kind of like Steven Spielberg’s use of Quint in Jaws (1975). That may seem an odd comparison, but in the film Quint is quietly losing it due to his wartime experiences.

And that’s what Will is dealing with in Leave No Trace. There are no flashbacks of his time in battle, merely hints of horrendous struggles, and what we see is the aftermath.

He’s terrified of helicopters (always taking cover whenever they fly overhead), struggles to discuss his issues openly, and has chronic sleeping issues.

This all plays out in the woods, with his 13 year old daughter for company (it’s hinted the mother has died quite a while ago). As the observer, you gradually realise what Will is doing and, of course, that’s not an environment you raise a minor in.

But the development of the father-daughter bond is done methodically and with great compassion—you can see why Tom continues to accept this way of life.

Yet, in the early stages of the plot, the family unit is briefly disrupted by social services wanting to know what Will is up to.

However, Will plunges them back into the wilderness to try and escape noise, society, and the issues that torment him. It becomes apparent he’s taking these steps as he loves his daughter dearly and is desperate to keep her in his life.

That’s despite often putting their lives in danger.

Over the course of the film, viewers find Tom’s character maturing onscreen into someone who understands her father’s issues and how he’s not deliberately making her life difficult. It’s just he can’t control it, but wants her around.

After Will’s injury, the pair is saved by a mobile home community.

Tom realises she wants the normal life they lead. That’s after she’s introduced to activities such as beekeeping and the peace of mind they bring, which she tries to introduce to her father.

It all leads to the film’s very emotional conclusion between the pair, a perfectly judged closing segment that explains Will’s actions alongside his daughter’s need for a more normal life.

In that respect we have here a coming of age story similar to Kings of the Summer (2013), merged alongside the PTSD (or shell shock) so many soldiers have had to suffer through.

Leave No Trace is an absolute slow burner. You must stick with it for the development over its near two hour running time.

Alongside the fantastic performances is a moving portrayal of family bonds, complemented by empathetic focus on the kindness of strangers—easy to forget in an age where it seems everyone around us is mindlessly individualistic.

Leave No Trace’s Production

Leave No Trace had a solid box office return of $7.7 million. It also got nominated for a batch of independent awards, but was ignored by the Oscars. That’s despite Ben Foster’s involvement.

Foster is a pretty big star in Hollywood who’s had supporting roles in 3:10 to Yuma, Hell or High Water, Hostiles, and Lone Survivor.

Once he signed onto this project, he worked with director Debra Granik to remove 40% of the dialogue from the script. That was to cut out excessive exposition for a focus on realism.

To prep for the film, Foster also took up professional training for living out in the woods. That included learning survival techniques and how to catch water from natural sources. Plus, he got to grips with the “gray man” technique, which lets you disappear in plain sight.

A big nod to Thomasin McKenzie, though, as she’s terrific in this—an excellent performance. She was actually 18 at the time of the shoot, obviously meaning she’s 22 now (good math from us).

Since then she’s starred in the likes of The King, Jojo Rabbit, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Old. Definitely one to watch for the future!

As for Leave No Trace, it was a critical darling, with the UK’s top film critic Dr. Mark Kermode rating it as his best film of 2018.

On a final note, throughout the film there are symbolic images representing the hippocampus.

That’s to represent PTSD, a condition that causes the hippocampus (a brain structure in your temporal lobe) to burn out after a traumatic event.

That led to the issues with “shell shock” for soldiers in WWI, WWII, and various other combat scenarios since then. It’s a little touch, but a thoughtful one nodding to those who’ve had to deal with the condition.


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