Kiwi actress Thomasin McKenzie's superlative performance in Leave No Trace

by James Robins / 05 September, 2018
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With her quiet poignancy, Thomasin McKenzie anchors the understated Leave No Trace.

It’s quiet out there, in the forest. Under verdant canopy, there are only chirping birds, low growls of wild dogs and the muttering of a father and daughter who have made their home in the wild: bearded and kindly Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Every now and again, the pair venture on foot into the city for supplies. As they draw nearer, the clutter and din of society get louder – traffic roars, the buzz of a hospital. Better to stay where it’s peaceful and undisturbed.

Director Debra Granik has form in isolated backwaters, with 2010’s superb Winter’s Bone, and the first act of Leave No Trace skilfully sketches routines without much dialogue. Indeed, her modest, hushed and unassuming film is a fine demonstration of what can be clearly stated without being said.

Will is a military veteran, and his disturbed sleep hints at a troubled mind. The forest is not necessarily an idyll, but it is safe – until society disturbs that peace with its unspoken expectations about how we’re supposed to live. To wish to disappear, and live contentedly away from the noise, can only look suspicious. Authorities come with their paperwork, tedious bureaucracy and questions.

“Where’s your home?” someone asks Tom. “With my dad,” she states flatly. At first, this is true. You wouldn’t doubt that she’d follow her damaged old man to the ends of the Earth, initially. But she is not plagued by the same demons; her need to disappear is not as strong. There will be a severing, and it will be devastating.

The story (from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment) centres on Tom’s adaptation to a new world, and in this, 17-year-old New Zealand actor Thomasin McKenzie is superlative. Her voice can be severe when needed, and yet it often betrays a fundamental uncertainty. And when the film’s few poignant moments fall to her, when all dramatic weight is placed on her shoulders, it is not the brimming tears that will undo you, but the subtle quiver of her bottom lip. Just as Winter’s Bone made a career for Jennifer Lawrence, one can’t help thinking that McKenzie’s, after such fine work in Leave No Trace, could be just as rich.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Bleecker Street

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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