The film Leave No Trace felt warm and inviting throughout, despite tackling difficult issues almost constantly, and taking place in a wet and cold environment. I believe this almost cozy atmosphere is due in part to the style of cinematography and also the delivery of incredibly real, not at all dramatic writing. The film was shot primarily in the woods, which would lend itself nicely to cool tones and a more damp and dark feeling, but the way each scene was lit, allowing for more of the bright greens and rich browns of the forest floor to shine as sunlight filtered though, made the scenes less cave-like and more like a pleasant hike with friends. They really could have leaned into the dark lighting like a lot of the films we’ve seen previously have (which does not go over well on the projector screen) and it would have well represented the darkness of PTSD for Will, and the feelings of confusion and anxiety for Tom, but instead chose to focus on the brightness of their relationship. The only moments which did go more so towards that dark lighting are the times where Tom and Will aren’t communicating well, and Tom is scared and confused about the situation. When they run away from the farmhouse and are taking the train and bus and finding the 18 wheeler are all moments that stray into the darkness, as do the moments in the woods when Tom is looking for her father. What I appreciate most in those moments is that they don’t stay like that for an extended period of time, but instead ebb and flow as the pair’s feelings change. Will takes care of Tom at the bus stop and buys her a warm drink, getting nothing for himself, and scene brightens up a little bit, Tom is feeling safe and warm in the back of the truck with dog and the lighting is soft and warm, and when they find the cabin the scene and light candles the scene is warm. It is only when Tom realizes that her dad isn’t coming back the shadows lengthen on the candles and give away her feelings of worry and anxiety.
I appreciated the fact that Debra Granik didn’t over-dramatize the relationship between Will and Tom and allowed the love and easy care they had for each other be the focal point for much of the film. They understand each other, which means they don’t talk all that much, but instead work together quietly, with Tom speaking about an occasion question she has, and Will usually being glad to answer. It wasn’t an important moment, but I was especially struck by Tom asking her dad what his favorite color was towards the beginning of the film. My dad is often a quiet man too, and I remember being a little kid and searching for questions to ask him just to keep the conversation going when it got quiet. There was one day that I asked him that exact question and he gave some non-committal response and directed the question back at me, just like Will did. It’s an odd moment to have stick out to me, but I guess it just felt so real, an absolutely accurate representation of a little kid trying to carry a conversation with a parent and having no idea what to bring up except for favorite colors. It would have been easy to write Tom as a dramatic pre-teen and create a caricature of that age on the screen, but instead they gave her a lot of power and autonomy, they trusted her to be a good character without all of that drama. Young kids often don’t make the best serious actors, but Thomasin McKenzie pulls off the role beautifully. Tom’s not perfect, and she gets upset at her dad at times, but through it all, she never forgets how important he is to her and how much she wants him to be a part of her life. Likewise, Will treats her more or less as an equal, respecting that she’s intelligent and capable, but also understanding that she is a kid. The one time that lets up a little is the scene where he tells her that they’ll [Child Protective Services or some equivalent] will take her away. In that moment he totally treats her as a child, but you can also tell how upset he is, and how that’s affecting his better judgement.
This film managed to deliver an awful lot of message without actually having much dialogue or action at all. Debra Ganik clearly trusted the film’s viewers enough to understand the message of the film without delivering it in the ham fisted method that many other directors take. She allowed viewers the time and the space during the film to sit in quiet contemplation, and that paid off massively, this film left me feeling really good afterwards. It wasn’t a film that I was able to leave and go right back to my day, it required some digestion, and I’m glad that I had that chance