Leave No Trace: Film Review | Tribeca 2022
(3.5/5) Irene Taylor has assembled a damning and profound documentary piece brimming with empathy and anger, providing a detailed account of the history of rampant abuse within the Boy Scouts while also offering an intimate and personal examination of the horrible effects of childhood abuse.
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Leave No Trace, directed by Irene Taylor, chronicles the century-long extensive cover-up of abuse by Boy Scouts of America, ultimately leading to the largest sexual abuse settlement agreement in history: 2.7 billion dollars. This film is an absolutely devastating, sickening, and thorough account of how a hugely powerful organization wielded its influence over families nationwide and continually swept abuse claims under the rug. This documentary is tasked with covering a huge scope of time - the abuse has literally been occurring for a century - and it balances this with intimate accounts of men who experienced this abuse.
One thing I found particularly powerful was the focus on the psychological effects of childhood abuse. Men in their 70s recount an incident that happened when they were 12 with the visceral fear and pain as if it happened yesterday. They remember how their abuser smelled, and they’ve spent their entire lives just trying to bury the endless loop of the incident to the deepest recess of their brain and lock it away. We see through firsthand accounts how the abuse at the hands of scout leaders has irreparably damaged so many lives. One older man recounts how he hasn’t been able to keep a job because he experiences outbursts when met with people exerting their power or authority. You see the pain and sadness in each man’s eyes through Taylor’s devastating and emotional conversations with them. The fact that an event that happened decades ago has this monumental and lasting of an effect really hammers home just how sick and horrible what The Boy Scouts of America continually enabled was.
I greatly appreciated the time spent delving into how abuse impacts the brain. It is discussed that it’s most common for men who were abused as a child to not process what happened until they are in their 50s, which a man in the documentary affirms was the case for him. It’s a heartbreaking examination of how the mind suppresses and locks away traumatic events for survival. In contrast to the older survivors we follow, we also follow a teenage boy and his younger brother, who are recent victims of recurring abuse by the same scout leader, exemplifying this is not a problem from decades ago but still occurring in the present day. I found this family’s scenes to be particularly gut-wrenching, because it’s all so fresh, and we’re witnessing the direct aftermath of abuse not only with the boys, who can’t speak about it, but with their parents.
There’s a hugely powerful scene where their son, who has yet to open up about what happened to him, speaks about the abuse for the first time for the documentarian as his parents sit beside him in their family living room. His parents are in complete devastation - you can feel the immense guilt, anger, and pain they are working through. These parents, like so many others, put their complete trust in the Boy Scouts to take care of their children, and they were manipulated. Witnessing the fresh aftermath of abuse in a young boy is a heart-wrenching and necessary contrast to the other older men in the documentary, putting into perspective just how young and innocent these men were when the abuse occurred.
Throughout these painful accounts, we are also following the settlement case and learning about the long-running cover-up scheme the Boy Scouts of America have been running. Upon an abuse claim being made, The Boy Scouts would place the scout leader on “probation,” and then place him as a leader of a league in another state, because they apparently believed in second chances for pedophiles, which is truly horrifying. A group supposed to be a safe place for children was actively and knowingly putting them in danger, and the film does an excellent job of laying out the massive cover-up in extensive detail, while also grounding it with real-life stories of the abuse’s effects on the survivors.
The film ends on an incredibly poignant note, as one of the survivors who now leads a support group, through tears, talks about the lasting effects of the abuse. Over shots of the lake and trees that surround him, he talks about how particularly sinister it is that something so terrible could happen in the great beauty of nature, in a place that is supposed to represent solace and peace. Irene Taylor has assembled a damning and profound documentary piece brimming with empathy and anger, simultaneously providing a detailed account of the systemic abuse and cover-up while also offering an intimate and personal examination of the horrible effects of childhood trauma.