In Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, there’s a prominent meditation of home and peace. There’s also trickles of separation, both the physical displacements and the emotional grips of life we come to face. Living on the margins just outside of Portland, Oregon prove to be a place of comfort for Will and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom. They’ve been living this way for so many years that it’s essentially become everything Tom has known to be real. A serene wilderness welcomes us in the opening scene as we’re introduced into their routine life living in Forest Park, where they call home. Will and Tom are in their comfort zone, gathering and suiting their needs from the land where they can, relishing in their worriless, spacious living. They prepare food and eat together, stay close at night for warmth, and have even practised how they’d escape and hide if they were to ever be discovered. Their way of life is compromised as people learn of their hiding and try to integrate them into society and normality, but it instead begins to test the very existence they hold dear. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster are quietly phenomenal here as they engage in a dynamic that’s both heart wrenching and endearing.
To leave no trace here is to leave nothing that can be traced back to you; to simply go live undetected, off the grid. Based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Leave No Trace carries a deep-rooted passion in how one father and daughter come to terms with a life that’s pulled the rug from under them and just how the journey back to the old reveals a new curiosity for adapting. Granik, along with long-time collaborating screenwriter/producer Anne Rosellini, tell us a story about family that is patient, and harmonious in junction with the world that greets them. Rosellini has worked closely with Granik through her past projects (Stray Dog, Winter’s Bone, Down to the Bone), helping now to form a tender, compelling adaptation in “Leave No Trace” that leaps into our hearts.
After being escorted out of the park for living on public property, Will and Tom are put through the system, cementing the influence of social realism and how the economy of living is affecting their existence. Will sometimes suffers from night terrors brought on by his past trauma so he’s heavily impacted by this sudden reintegration. Tom cries out for her dad when they get seperated for examination, never once having been apart from him. She’s devoted herself to the tranquil living they built as a two-person family, only depending on the other. Their relationship is at the heart of the film and it makes McKenzie and Foster stellar, convincing characters. It’s based on all the tribulations they face as they try to adjust, abandon, and reexamine their livelihood and where they can go from there. There’s a scene where Tom introduces her dad to the harmony and warmth of a beehive, something she herself was awe-inspired by. “See, you don’t need to be scared,” she tells him, now holding the bees on her gloveless fingers. Beautifully, this story begins to tell of how Will admires his daughter’s love for life and discovery, even when it’s indirectly trying to comfort him to the possibilities.
Foster gives an excellent, realized performance of a man who’s felt so much battle and defeat in his life that it’s made him feel obsolete to the society he’s casted himself from. His PTSD flares up from time to time as he relentlessly fights to keep his daughter and this sense of security nearby. McKenzie is truly the star that shines brighter as the film treks its way to the end. Tom is loving and pays close attention to care for her father, but she also begins to listen to the curiosity that grows within her. The people she’s met through the new housing journey have been the most welcome— giving them a mobile home to live in, Will a job, and Tom an agricultural group with others her age for learning new skills— and while it deeply overwhelms Will, it doesn’t make Tom want to retreat to the parklands.
It’s not a spoiler to say that there is no intentional conflict in Leave No Trace. The struggles of reality and feeling enclosed to live a way not normally accustomed to is the unmistakable inner conflict, and it leaves a lot to think on once credits roll. It’s clear that a bond that’s been untouched for so long can desperately unravel when shaken, but Will and Tom are quite resilient. It’s become one of my favorite stories this year and it has a sincerity that reaches new lengths. Debra Granik is a magnificent storyteller, moreso when it comes to observing the lives of those living off the grid or having had to persevere against all odds. Leave No Trace is an astonishing, quiet portrait of that.
Directed by: Debra Granik
Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeffery Rifflard