Set in the Sequoia National Forest during a last-ditch attempt at romance-saving by way of camping trip, Adele Romanski‘s Leave Me Like You Found Me imagines that relationship rehab amongst the trees can be both cathartic and catastrophic. Erin (Megan Boone) and Cal (David Nordstrom) have been apart for a year, and while we don’t ever learn just who made the first move and who conceived of the trip, we do know who left in the first place. Cal walked out on Erin, and it’s easy to see why he might have felt compelled to do so – she’s woefully insecure about herself and their relationship, yet she’s also convinced that she’s the better catch of the two.
The camping trip is both a bonding exercise and a try-out period to see if the two have overcome their problems and differences and are now able to participate in a healthy and loving romance. But while a year has passed since their initial break-up, it’s clear that their issues have not disappeared and that they’re extremely prone to allowing little tiffs and digs to turn into blowout arguments.
While Leave Me Like You Found Me features some limited supporting work (two neighboring camper dudes add some necessary humor to the film’s first half), the film is undoubtedly a two-man operation. Fortunately, Boone and Nordstrom are both adept at inhabiting their roles and suffusing them with honesty and believability, and Romanski takes her time in growing the characters into fully fleshed-out people. Generally excellent performances are not without some flatlining, however, with Cal coming across as an unshaded and uninspired jerk for the film’s second act, and Erin turning into a screeching shrew towards the film’s end. They are not necessarily “fun” to watch on screen, but they are quietly riveting and relatable, even when nothing much seems to be happening (in the traditional and cinematic sense) on-screen.
Romanski and her crew use their setting to gorgeous effect – the Sequoia National Forest is beautiful and vast, but it’s also capable of packing in some scares, especially when night falls in unfamiliar locations. Romanski did not use much extra lighting for the production of Leave Me Like You Found Me, but the absence of false fluorescence isn’t missed at all, particularly during the film’s strongest sequence, one which relies on the transition from day to night to amp up tension between Erin and Cal.
That sequence eventually requires the use of headlamps on both the leads, a bit lensed and lit so masterfully that it’s worth the price of admission just to watch. Such a bold scene speaks to Romanski’s talent as a director, as she utilizes every piece of the production puzzle to craft it – beyond just lighting and setting, the scene’s performances, writing, editing, and tone are some of the best of the festival. It is unfortunate, however, that Leave Me Like You Found Me takes much of its runtime to get to this scene, with the film’s first fifty or so minutes occurring without big incident in a manner that moves past lulling the audience to potentially just boring them. Viewers who stick with the film during its more uneventful scenes will be rewarded with a third act that contains every beat one could desire from a love story about finding your way out of the wilderness.
The Upside: Engaging performances; a nice spin on the camping drama; beautiful scenery; solid third-act tension.
The Downside: The film takes too long to get to its greatest moments; honest characters walk the line between feeling realistic and annoying, often falling into unlikable material.