Leave No Trace

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
Leave No Trace Movie Poster Image
Tension, some peril in intense father-daughter drama.
  • PG
  • 2018
  • 108 minutes

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 4 reviews

Kids say

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about everyone needing to find their own path and understanding and supporting those who choose nontraditional ways to live. Despite the film's painful choices, it's imbued with love and compassion. Tom and Will's mutual trust, respect, and caring are enviable, and their resourcefulness is impressive.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although the way Will has chosen to raise Tom is extremely debatable, he is unquestionably nurturing, protective, and intelligent. Both he and his daughter are loyal and resourceful. Tom is brave -- including in facing the momentous decision she must eventually make. City and Veterans Affairs workers are compassionate, and strangers are helpful and kind. The film's view of people is generally positive and humanistic.

Violence

No violent conflict shown; frequent tension and worry. A veteran suffers from PTSD. A character is found after an apparent fall; he's badly hurt, but it's not graphic. Exposure-related peril in which a young character could die; in another part of the movie, she's alone and scared. All of this is presented realistically, not melodramatically. An aid worker asks a teen girl if she's been inappropriately touched, etc.; the answer is no.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Will collects his prescribed medications from the VA and sells them to a drug dealer. Actual use of the pills isn't shown.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Leave No Trace is an intense, moving drama from the director of Winter's Bone about a loving father and daughter who are shaken out of their comfortable (if alternative) existence and must struggle to cope with society's demands. It deals with complex, realistic topics including homelessness, alternative living, and occasional exposure-related peril, all involving a 13-year-old girl (Thomasin McKenzie). Her father (Ben Foster) is a veteran who's suffering from PTSD; he makes choices that aren't meant to harm anyone but that could upset/disturb younger viewers. He also sells his prescription meds to a drug dealer. But there's no strong language or sex; the girl is intelligent, loving, and brave; and the movie ultimately has themes of understanding, love, and compassion.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byCarefulaboutmovies July 23, 2018

Amazing movie, lots of layers, emotionally heavy

Wow. Just wow. This movie was amazing, so many layers and things to think about. Really opens the door for some great discussion. Loved how the healing power of... Continue reading
Adult Written byannacat July 28, 2018

Disappointment

Went into this movie thinking there were positive messages and came out very disappointed. SPOILER: the movie ends with the dad giving into his own special kind... Continue reading

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What's the story?

Based on Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment (which itself was inspired by a true story), LEAVE NO TRACE follows a troubled veteran named Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), as they try to live outside society. But when their self-sufficient existence in an Oregon public forest is upended, they're forced to integrate into the world -- or escape and find another way to live. Their loving bond is tested as Tom experiences the wider world outside their camp, and hard choices must be made. 

Is it any good?

Well-acted and well-written, calmly presented, and moving, this drama has a ring of truth, despite its extraordinary story. Perhaps that's because it was, after all, inspired by true events. In a way, Leave No Trace could function as the middle part of a trilogy (in between the excellent Captain Fantastic and Lean on Pete) of contemporary American indies depicting lifestyles outside of mainstream society. All three films show the mighty struggles of those on the outside -- some by choice, some scraping to survive. All three involve the experiences of children. Leave No Trace, which was directed and co-adapted by Debra Granik (of the superb Winter's Bone), isn't as witty as Captain Fantastic or as harrowing as Lean on Pete, but it is soulful and emotional. It's rooted deeply in Will and Tom's genuine respect and love for each other, which makes their choices and resourcefulness all the more admirable.

It's up to the two leads, Foster and relative newcomer McKenzie, to carry the film, and they're more than up to the task. McKenzie in particular is arresting as a loving daughter whose eyes are opened to a world she never dreamed she wanted to know. But the film is ultimately about how far down a difficult road people can go together before one of them needs to diverge. The kindness of strangers and the truthfulness of familial love speak to the deep humanism that informs this drama, even as it moves toward a painful conclusion. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why Will and Tom are forced to integrate into society in Leave No Trace. Is it fair? Necessary? How do they each react to their changed circumstances? Which one of them do you relate to more?

  • How does the movie convey the importance of compassion? How do Will and Tom support each other, even when their choices are different? Do you consider them role models?

  • How are homeless people typically portrayed on-screen? How do Will and Tom compare to that depiction? Do you think they were better off in the forest or in the home they were provided by the government? Or elsewhere?

  • Was Will at all scary to you? What did you think of him and his choices?

Movie details

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