Leave No Trace: Greener Than the Green Monster

SPOILER ALERT: I will hint at some scenes that happen throughout the course of the film. Odds are you have not seen this movie, which is totally understandable considering the fact that I just found out about it three months after its release (I need to get my head in the game this is shameful). If you are still scared I will ruin the movie in light of this news, comb through the usual “too long, didn’t read” and the “Oscar Watch” section.

TL:DR Score and Synopsis: 81/100 – A fresh (albeit depressing) story with superb acting

Now onto the actual review:

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Given the consistent struggles of the United States Veterans Administration to accommodate for US soldiers suffering from PTSD after serving overseas, Director Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” was timely. It followed the story of a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) living in the forests as borderline nomads in northwestern America. Throughout the course of the film, the father’s struggles as a veteran unraveled, and it showcased just how difficult it is for our amazing veterans to re-adapt to modern society after spending so much time in the trenches.

 One element that jumped out immediately was the use of the color green. From the leaves, to the furniture, to the clothing, “Leave No Trace” could have been called “50 Shades of Green.”  However, that aesthetic choice ought not to be mistaken with that absolute monstrosity of a book (which inevitably turned into a movie series) that contains a fairly similar name to the joke I just made, just with a different color. Admit it, you know what I am talking about. You know that series is absolute trash, and you probably were one of those people perpetuating Hollywood’s worst habits. You also probably contributed $14.95 (plus) to their three films (that ALL grossed over $100 million dollars, and lord knows how much more from book sales). It’s cool, I won’t tell anyone you did that, your secret is safe with me.

Personally, I found the use of that color quite refreshing and intriguing. I struggled to pinpoint the EXACT reason why the director made this choice; perhaps she wanted to symbolize the common colors of the military, the importance of the camouflage element to the color and/or his attempts to “Leave No Trace” in everyday society. It’s just a hunch on my end. I could be wrong. Regardless, I could tell it was calculated, which I liked because it added a unique vibe to the film that helped make it more memorable. It gave me a newfound appreciation for the beauty of the color.

From a character standpoint, while no other characters get any chance to develop, the two focal points, Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), showed incredible depth. Not only did their characters develop in interesting ways throughout the course of the film, they captured the hardships of Will’s inability to adapt without using any flashbacks. I recently railed on a movie for its excessive use of unnecessary flashbacks, so to go from that to a film that used not a single one, yet still got its point across in a deeply coherent way, helped me remember what effective filmmaking looks like.  

Ben Foster’s non-verbal actions made it well know he experienced some serious troubles over his time in service and that it would forever affect him going forward.  However, despite his great acting range, Thomasin McKenzie stole the show. Her character not only underwent positively dynamic development, she showed a great non-verbal range and sincerity not seen in many characters in today’s movies. Maybe some more overt emotion at times could have helped, but you could sense she tried to remain strong in hopes it would help her father overcome his issues.

One scene in particular stuck out as “movie magic” for me.  It involved the showcasing of a beehive to Tom by a friendly stranger who took them in. She told her how a human being can withstand 500 bee stings, and how even though bees will sting, they do not want to do that because if you build up their trust, they will do wonders for you. It was a nice way to symbolize human nature that opened my mind. To see the daughter then pass that information on to her father later on was heartwarming, even if he never really took it to heart. Considering my propensity to get regularly stung by them, the fact that this film could make bees seem not only sympathetic, but also relate their behaviors to everyday life, amazed me.

While the overwhelming majority of the movie impressed me, it felt pretty slow at times, was pretty depressing, and certain character development points were never completely fleshed out. None of those were deal-breakers by any means, but it should go without saying this film should not be watched as a “feel good” family one. The “depressing” element did take away from the firepower of the film in a fairly significant way, which I will get to in a bit.

One elephant that never got addressed was the mother. They mention her very briefly, and I get that going into her character more could have added another very depressing element to an already depressing film, but some kind of raw conversation or explanation as to what happened to her would have been nice. It seemed a bit odd that a father-daughter combo living in the woods would avoid discussing that altogether, especially in times of severe conflict. This was a small misstep that I noticed, but it’s the father’s character arc, which was poorly developed, that was a bigger nusance.

While I understand veterans undergo significant trauma, there was no “save the cat” moment that many perpetually depressed characters undergo. I am not saying the veteran suffering from PTSD needed to have his heart grow three sizes in one day, shout “eureka” at the top of his lungs and start happily dancing in the streets to the opening theme of “La La Land.” However, what made certain grieving characters (such as Casey Affleck’s character in “Manchester by the Sea”) compelling was that you could see they genuinely tried to fight off their demons before caving in. Will’s inability to make even a remote attempt to get re-acclimated detracted from his sympathy a little bit. I get he struggled a lot and it would be difficult to re-adjust, but it also seemed quite selfish at times, especially given his daughter’s willingness to adapt to societal demands. Not only that, but everyone in the film seemed more than willing to accommodate for him and help him succeed. I get that’s what the director was trying to get at with this film, but it irked me nonetheless.

With all of that said, I don’t suffer from PTSD, and from what I gathered, this was a pretty accurate depiction of it. To anyone outraged by my unsympathetic comments toward a suffering fictional veteran: at least I didn’t make millions of dollars creating a three-part series about a perverted billionaire. Direct your REAL anger at EL James, not me please.

Despite some personal qualms with the tone and character development, “Leave No Trace” left a lasting impact on me. I look forward to seeing what lays in store for Director Debra Granik and the rest of the squad involved with this film.

 

Oscar Watch:

While I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I am taking off my green shaded glasses for this analysis and will be blunt.  I am not at all convinced that it will get much (if any) recognition at this year’s Academy Awards. Part of it comes from the fact that it does not do enough to set it apart from the rest of the pack. The other reason mostly stems from its severe lack of marketing. Very few people even know about this film, which does not bode well for its chances. I give it a seven percent chance it gets nominated for the coveted “Best Picture” prize. A few of the following elements could land nominations, but keep in mind, much of this could just be wishful thinking on my end. 

Long-shot nominations:

Best Actor: Ben Foster – His ability to portray so much hardship and emotional struggle through non-verbal means was impeccable. It almost seemed like he actually served as a veteran himself. He had a very authentic performance that is not getting enough attention.

Best Supporting Actress: Thomasin McKenzie: She already has to face the downside of being younger than the rest of the pack, coupled with the lack of attention this movie is getting. However, she performed marvelously. She played a dynamic, strong character that was very sympathetic and credible. To all the feminists out there: I highly recommend this movie for you, you will fawn all over Thomasin McKenzie’s performance.