Roles in Retrospect #1 – Thomasin McKenzie and ‘Leave No Trace’ (2018)

Sometimes while watching a film, an actor who you were previously unfamiliar with grabs your attention. There’s something about their performance that not only causes you to feel instantly drawn to the character they portray, but makes you eager to see what else they have done over the years. I’ve found myself seeking out various actors’ filmographies after the credits roll on many occasions for this very reason. The most current example that comes to mind is Thomasin McKenzie, who I was introduced to through her standout performance in Edgar Wright’s thriller Last Night in Soho

The film sees McKenzie play Eloise Turner, a modern-day fashion student obsessed with the past; in particular, 1960s London. McKenzie is captivating from the moment she appears on screen in the opening sequence, and she maintains this energy throughout the film’s various transformative beats. Although the sensitive Eloise has her foot in two worlds, McKenzie imbues her with a charismatic groundedness, making her a great audience surrogate. She also manages to hold her own in scenes with co-star Anya Taylor-Joy— an impressive feat in and of itself given the latter’s own exceptional talent.

A young girl with long dark hair (McKenzie) wears an oversized white t-shirt. She stands in an auditorium that appears empty, looking up at a woman performing, who is partially obscured by both the framing and the lighting.
Last Night in Soho, image courtesy of Universal Pictures

While Last Night in Soho certainly gives McKenzie a chance to shine, the New Zealand-born actress has also become known for Taika Waititi’s satirical World War II dramedy Jojo Rabbit and M. Night Shyamalan’s age-bending beach thriller Old. Here though, I’m most interested in focusing on her performance in the 2018 drama Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik. It was actually while watching this film that the idea for this column came to me, as it brought to mind the countless other times I’ve discovered films by exploring a particular actor’s body of work. 

Roles In Retrospect aims to illuminate some of the lesser known films of stars who have now become more widely recognized, specifically drawing attention to their performances. Admittedly, this column is a self-indulgent undertaking in some ways because it gives me the opportunity to write about actors who I personally love to watch. However, my ultimate hope is that in talking about these titles, people will be inspired to check them out themselves.

A young girl with long brunette hair (McKenzie) wearing a button-up shirt. She is inside a building, and holds clothing in her arms.
Leave No Trace, image courtesy of Bleecker Street Films

Leave No Trace somehow hadn’t landed on my radar until I sought it out because of McKenzie, which I found surprising due to the widespread critical praise it has received. Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 memoir My Abandonment, the film centres on Tom (McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster), a father-daughter duo who choose to live off the grid. Rather than settling into the conventional lifestyle suburbia offers, they make an Oregon nature park their home. Once the pair are discovered by local authorities though, they end up having to leave the life they knew behind. 

Much of Leave No Trace consists of private moments between Tom and her father, with their bond serving as its foundation. It is an intimate film that feels fairly small in scope, often prioritizing the intrinsic and existential over a need for intense dramatic action. And when it comes to the performances themselves, there’s no question that McKenzie’s Tom is what makes Leave No Trace so compelling. Her character is the heart of the film, full of youthful exuberance while also possessing a maturity beyond her years— both sides that McKenzie plays convincingly. She is also adept at subtly conveying Tom’s internal conflict as she grapples with the idea that something more for her exists out in the world. Some of the most emotionally affecting moments in Leave No Trace arise as a result of this struggle, as Tom finds herself torn between the unconventional comfort she’s known her whole life, and the hope and possibility of putting new roots down.

A young girl with brunette hair (McKenzie) wearing a patterned green beanie and green jacket. She sits against a graffitied wall with a middle-aged white man (Foster), who has a rugged beard, brown zip-up jacket, and green baseball cap. The two are looking at one another.
Leave No Trace, image courtesy of Bleecker Street Films

I won’t spoil where Tom’s journey leads, but the film’s ending is especially poignant thanks to the raw emotion that McKenzie in particular brings to the scene. Admittedly, it isn’t always the case that an actor’s first leading role in a feature film is also one of their best performances to date, and sometimes it’s best for these early projects to be left in the past rather than revisited. However, Leave No Trace is well worth your time, and McKenzie’s talent isn’t wasted here in the slightest; instead, it’s a great showcase of her potential as a young rising star before she became known to a whole new audience.