Leave No Trace
2018, PG, 109 min. Directed by Debra Granik. Starring Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Jeff Kober, Isaiah Stone.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 13, 2018
To the individual, the constraints and restrictions imposed by society can seem burdensome, yet most people acquiesce because the personal benefits of living within communities ultimately outweigh the detriments of being an outsider. But there are some who, for whatever reasons, cannot comply and choose to turn their backs on society. The rationales may be philosophical or political, instinctual or mystical, perhaps even unknown to the individual. Leave No Trace zeros in on one such individual who, for reasons never fully explained, has elected to live apart from the world. He has with him his teenage daughter, which becomes both his saving grace and his handicap.
Will (Foster) and his daughter Tom (Harcourt McKenzie) live off the land in a nature preserve at the edges of Portland, Ore. We observe their rugged existence in the first section of the film: foraging for mushrooms, building campfires with their hands, sleeping beneath tarps, playing chess, and camouflaging their presence in a series of drills. We don’t know why they’re there. Tom doesn’t avow any survivalist doctrines, and there’s no evidence of anything sexually untoward between the parent and child. Tom appears reasonably well-fed and educated, and harbors no outward signs of dissatisfaction with her environment or parental expectations. It’s clear that this living arrangement has existed for some time, but the film never spells out how that came to be. Occasionally, the two hike into town for provisions that the land can’t provide, and so that Will, a veteran of an unspecified war, can visit the VA hospital where he receives medication, which he regularly sells to area vagrants for pocket change. A small mistake leads to their capture and subsequent entry into the social services system. More accommodating than one might expect, the system finds them housing and work on a remote tree farm. The experience opens Tom to the pleasures of shelter and friendship, but Will balks at society’s encroachments and insists he and Tom hightail it out of there. The remainder of the movie becomes a loving push and pull between Will and Tom’s diverging needs. As Tom comes to discover the satisfactions of social interaction and community togetherness, Will’s need to burrow into the woods grows deeper. All parents must grapple with how to enable their children to leave the nest; Leave No Trace makes that struggle almost literal.Directed by Debra Granik, who made the award-winning Winter’s Bone, the film that introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world, Leave No Trace continues Granik’s fascination with characters living on society’s margins as well as her talent for finding talent. Both Lawrence and John Hawkes were Oscar-nominated for their performances in Winter’s Bone, and Granik’s previous drama, Down to the Bone, showcased Vera Farmiga in one of her first starring roles, playing an impoverished drug addict trying to eke out some normalcy. New Zealander Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie delivers a stirring performance as Leave No Trace’s naive-to-the-world teen, her abilities seeming all the more remarkable for holding her own against Ben Foster’s quietly internalized anguish. Granik’s films also convey a strong sense of place, which is aided in large measure by cinematographer Michael McDonough, who shot all three of the director’s narrative films.
The story of Leave No Trace is based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, which is drawn from an ambiguous but true story about a father and daughter who lived in the park near Portland. It’s a story that might remind some of such films as Captain Fantastic and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both curiously starring Viggo Mortensen, or perhaps Kelly Reichardt’s small dramas set in the American Northwest (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy). Although the dramatic scale of Leave No Trace is small as well, that trait should not be mistaken for insignificance. This film raises more questions than it answers, which can prove a turnoff to some viewers, but others will soak in its ambiguities long after the closing credits. There are no battles royal between father and child, no uncontrolled outbursts by the vet with PTSD. Despite their unconventional lives, the pair must face the challenges of separation as do all parents and offspring. Theirs becomes a choice between covering their tracks or accepting a place at the table. Does a family that crashes in the forest make a sound? Debra Granik gets the volume on this modified Zen koan of a movie just right.