Combing the 100% Club: ‘Leave No Trace’ balances social critique with gentle hope

June 7, 2022, 2:47 p.m.

Welcome to Combing the 100% Club. In this column, I’ll be reviewing and recommending lesser known members of Rotten Tomatoes’ 100% Club — the site’s trove of films with perfect Tomatometer scores. Follow along to find out why critics love these films and why you might love them too. 

Filmmaker Debra Granik claimed her first 100% score with her 2014 documentary “Stray Dog,” which offers a contemplative portrait of Vietnam War veteran Ron “Stray Dog” Hall. Though “Stray Dog” follows a drastically different protagonist than Granik’s 2018 feature film “Leave No Trace,” it is clear that Granik was able to translate her documentarian interest in everyday life from the former to the latter, resulting in a leisurely picture that enraptures viewers with ease. 

Father-daughter duo Will (Ben Foster) — an army veteran — and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are integral to the intrigue of “Leave No Trace” from the outset. Transient inhabitants of a Pacific Northwest forest park, Will and Tom communicate in tongue clicks and telegraphic sentences, hum nursery rhymes while harvesting crops and take every precaution to stay off the grid. They work, eat and sleep in sync, perfectly content in their peaceful autonomy. That is, until a jogger spots Tom reading in the woods and tips them off to local authorities. A shaky assimilation into conventional life then ensues, and Will and Tom’s tight-knit bond begins fraying as Tom surpasses Will in her willingness and ability to adapt to their new life outside the forest. 

Though its story is specific, “Leave No Trace” offers a universally resonant critique of institutions that do not adequately care for those they pledge to serve. More particularly, Granik exposes the United States’ disregard for the mental rehabilitation of its veterans. Bureaucrats and good-natured neighbors offer Will physical accommodations at every turn, but he perpetually lacks the resources to manage his post traumatic stress, which prevents him from truly trusting anybody. 

Early in the film, Tom happily follows Will’s lead. The first words she says to him are “Thank you,” and she indulges his unconventional mushroom-cooking contraption without challenge. However, Tom’s theatrically comedic pronouncement “I’m growing” — perfectly enunciated by McKenzie in a childish monster impersonation — and her later fascination at a revolving door finely foreshadow her outgrowth of Will’s elected lifestyle. 

By juxtaposing Will’s and Tom’s reactions to polite society, Granik effectively underscores how severely Will’s post traumatic stress has eaten away at his core self — the one reflected in Tom. She is playful, energetic and sociable. Meanwhile, Will is overwhelmed by stacks of paperwork and the pressure to attend church; midway through the film, Foster brilliantly delivers an acerbic line: “If you dress up, show up on Sunday, people will believe certain things about you.” When Tom stealthily attempts to lobby for a cell phone, Will, frustrated, tells her with uncharacteristic sternness: “Always been able to communicate without all that.” The “we” missing from Will’s statement is, to him, always implied; they are a unit. But as their paths diverge further, viewers become tragically aware of how easily Tom is slipping from Will’s grasp. That we sense so much relational strain with such scant dialogue is a testament to both Granik’s direction and these actors’ skill in nonverbal performance. 

While “Leave No Trace” represents Tom and Will’s scission effectively through plot and dialogue, it also does so with referential and recurring visuals. Immediately after their departure from the forest, Will struggles to complete a government questionnaire at a local detainment center, which is filmed in a cold, colorless haze. He mutters that he “used to be” a team player and subsequently admits with sorrowful silence that he suffers from night terrors, yet our attention drifts to the forest wallpaper behind him — it appears to envelop him. Later, when he considers leaving another temporary housing accommodation for the forest again, the green in his eyes glint the exact green of the foliage in his view. This kind of attention to detail is what elevates “Leave No Trace” to more than a flat social problem film. Further, at the film’s start, we see a pair of spider webs glistening in the sun — representing Will and Tom’s mutual mimicry and intimacy. At its close, we only see one flimsy web waving in the wind. 

Altogether, Granik uses such diverse techniques to depict the anguish of a father losing his daughter because he cannot heal from his past. Government workers are more concerned with Will’s punctuality and paper-filing than his wellbeing, and left to rely on his daughter’s good faith, Will’s relationship with Tom falters. Will refuses to trust anyone else, caught in the mentality of wartime survival. In one scene, barely able to meet Tom’s gaze, Will says he is sorry for risking his life to retrieve supplies. But keenly aware of Granik’s use of metonymy to exponentially increase the picture’s emotional weight, we feel he is sorry for so much more than that. 

McKenzie and her character glisten gold in this film. Despite Granik’s solidly posed social critique, Tom’s infatuation with her newfound community shows there is still hope for generational healing. Near the film’s close, she caresses bees with her bare hands, subtly declaring that she does not fear being hurt in the ways her father does. Her performance is so raw, so delicately precise, that viewers accommodate simultaneous impressions of Tom’s profound pain and her commitment to personal and collective restoration. McKenzie won the National Board of Review’s Breakthrough Performance Award for her performance in “Leave No Trace” and subsequently garnered critical acclaim that cast her in recent blockbusters “The Power of the Dog” and “Last Night in SoHo.”

The film’s bittersweet ending aligns thematically with the veteran experience: these forever-soldiers are teased with happy endings by institutions that have no intention of granting them, and we are left with a mere semblance of hope. “Leave No Trace” is conscious of the drastic failures of veteran rehabilitation as well as of the well-meaning but futile efforts of bureaucrats — intimately revealing the price of these failures in Will and Tom’s inevitable division. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Malia Mendez ’22 is the Vol. 260 Managing Editor of Arts & Life at The Stanford Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mmendez 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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