“It’s a classic American story of endurance and family, but one critically stripped of ersatz mythology or neat resolutions.”
by Ken Bakely
A film like Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace renews our perspective and refreshes our attention spans. Absent of excessive dialogue or intricate plot arcs, our focus stays on the two main characters as they interact with their surroundings, other people, and each other. The vastness of the setting (the forests of the Pacific Northwest) serves as a silent reminder of the forces beyond their control which impact them with the consistent power of changing tides. As Will (Ben Foster), a PTSD-stricken veteran, raises his preteen daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), living in a tent deep in an urban park, it’s clear that this way of life is all the girl has ever known, and her entire worldview has developed through her father’s decisions. She’s never found anything intrinsically tragic or upsetting about this, because the notion that she depends on him teaching her every skill necessary for basic survival isn’t a bargaining chip or a stated fact – it’s just the way things are.
Eventually, they’re found by social services, who place them in a house in a rural village and begin the process of reintegrating them into society. Of course, this is best for both of them – there’s never any question that Will’s off-the-grid lifestyle is, if nothing else, an unsustainable way to raise a child. But it’s even more obvious that he is unable to accept this at face value, and soon, they’re out of the house and back into the woods, traveling as far away as they can. Whenever they stumble upon the assistance of other people or groups, it’s always Will’s prerogative to get away from them as fast as possible. Yet things can’t be the way they were before: having lived in an established community with other people for the first time, Tom begins drawing her own conclusions and envisioning her own ideals. She doesn’t view civilization as the rigid prison that he does, and she finds the constant uprooting and inability to connect with others deeply exhausting. The title Leave No Trace most directly refers to Will’s philosophy of avoiding laying down roots and maintaining complete separation from all of society’s networks, rejecting the systems that put instilled his traumas and didn’t care to help. His ideas are intrinsically born from his past and his struggles, but they’re not realities transferable to others.
It’s the capturing of such specific emotional spaces that gives the film the uncompromised power it has. Granik conveys that though these characters are deeply dependent on each other, their perceptions of the world grow far more independent. Will has made his decision, risks and impracticality ignored, on how he wants to live his life; attempts to remove him from that goal feel like a long, slow drag into a dark abyss. We’re never made privy to what he experienced in war and how it led him to his current position, and the film’s strict expositional reticence helps keep us firmly within the confines of present moments and settings. Foster’s performance is appropriately insular and introspective. Opposingly, Tom’s perspective is still in a state of active shaping. She doesn’t love her father any less because of it, but she learns that the anxieties he has spent her life imparting on her don’t have to be her future. McKenzie’s starmaking turn in this role is astonishing, as she expertly uses each experience and interaction with new people and locations as further chances to evolve her character’s realizations.
Leave No Trace leans heavily on Tom’s continual sense of discovery, as it fills in deeper understanding in the open-ended quest of contextualizing humans with nature, and vice versa. Granik’s camera drinks in every exterior landscape possible, and characters are rarely framed in shallow focus. The plot’s very existence is about the connection between parent and child – a natural, elemental human relationship – and how a child’s gradual divergence from a parent’s subconscious expectations for a future like their past is both a necessary sign of growth and a shift from previous assumptions that’s difficult to handle. Setting it all against thick foliage and endless botanical marvels relinquishes the story from any era-specific observations or extraneous thematic clutter. It’s a classic American story of endurance and family, but one critically stripped of ersatz mythology or neat resolutions. Simply put, Granik keeps her eye on the characters and their journeys (both emotional and physical). They’re not shoehorned into any artificial template, and not a single moment feels out of place in her fully realized world.
By the time the film reaches its end, we’ve not only become invested in Will and Tom’s destinations, but what they represent as differing conceptions of personal autonomy. Neither want to accept complacency, neither want to feel as if others decide their fate, but how they see those obstacles manifest in their lives eventually differs substantially. Leave No Trace doesn’t pretend that it could ornately convey the minutia of its characters’ thoughts and feelings. Instead, much is communicated through sparse conversations and single actions, a testament to not only a gifted cast, but the strong and confident decisions of a filmmaker who works with exceptional economy and detail. So much could be said through languid speeches or incessant backstory, but so much more is actually experienced through Granik’s poised precision. On the surface, the film’s approach is gentle enough to feel as if it’s been told in verse; yet the powerful examinations of compassion and survival that drive it from underneath are the rich and complex melody that turns it into an haunting, timeless song.