Just weeks before Leave No Trace opened nationwide, there was a news story of Arizona forest fires flushing out hundreds of homeless who call those public lands their home. As the raging fires swept the national forests, local social workers were swamped by those desperate for help. No one knew that many people were permanently hidden away in the trees.
Based on a true story and first fictionalized in Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, Debra Granik’s haunting film Leave No Trace follows the lives of two such people who had been undetected and off the grid for years. In prepping for this film, director Granik asks the question, “Who among us has the inner strength and autonomy to live outside the churning new cell phone cycle and the amplified social chatter of our digital consumer society?” Pondering this answer is at the heart of this marvelous film.
Will (Ben Foster), a widowed veteran, and his daughter of about 13, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), are living in a natural forest preserve outside Portland, Oregon. For the first 20 minutes of this film, so picturesque are the vistas and so total the self-reliance, you might believe these two are simply camping in a lush wood, hidden in the green fern. They seemed removed from all of society, both its pleasures and its ills. Is this a tale of survival? A post-apocalyptic end of the world and all that’s left is the forest? There is a peace and calm to the proceedings, a luxuriant fertility to trees and fern and soil, a genuine communion between the parent and child and with nature.
What will be the serpent in this Eden?
But so little is explained that you grow uneasy from the menace barely under the surface of the idyll. I found my own breath slowing down, teetering on the edge, not wanting the disruption or intrusion of reality. Then you slowly realize this is not some retreat to Walden Pond but a PTSD-haunted father desperate to keep moving, to keep hiding, to keep escaping from the demons gnawing and clawing at him.
Father and daughter leave the woods only rarely to visit a grocery for staples and a clinic for meds. Soon enough they are discovered and forcibly removed by the law, then later both evaluated by kind-hearted and well-intentioned social service counselors who want the best for them. There are a series of housing changes, none of them permanent, as the father becomes more despairing and the daughter more determined.
The lure of the forest is so great and the fear and distrust of society so overwhelming that Will’s demons will never let him adapt. Tom must do what is best for her, and in a heart-wrenching scene says softly, gently, almost under her breath, “Same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.” The film lets us assume that many of those wrongs are related to his life as a soldier in combat, and we do see others in forest camps who are damaged goods. We wonder if Tom will be similarly damaged and to what degree.
Our growing awareness of the true nature of Will and the true need of Tom is masterfully explored in subtle, nuanced, minimal dialogue. Granik and Anne Rosellini, who co-wrote the screenplay, had perfected their skill in Winter’s Bone and Down to the Bone, films that also explored ways in which the female works desperately to save or redeem the male, and fails at such a formidable task. That theme is carried on here in Leave No Trace, with Wordsworth’s dictum about the child being father to the man ratcheted up as this child must step back and let him go. We usually think of parents having to learn to let the child grow up and away; here those roles are achingly reversed. Tom has learned to parent her father, compensating for his psychiatric vulnerabilities, defending him, protecting him, and ultimately detaching from him.
There are no villains in this tale — only love, desperation, separation, acceptance. The final scene where these decisions are made is filmed so quietly, beautifully, intimately, filled with resonance and emotion, that Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, father and daughter, pierce our hearts in ways that stay with you for days and weeks after viewing this film.
This film is more than an anthropological exploration of nomadic life in the forest. It’s more than a psychological exploration of veterans struggling with PTSD. It’s more than a sociological study of the homeless in our midst. But with all those at work, overlaid with a girl's growing self-awareness and gritty coming-of-age, director Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough have given us a stunning work of art as testament to survival. J.R.R. Tolkien was right. “Not all who wander are lost.” Will and Tom find their own way into that poetry and that reality.
If you miss this film, you will miss one of the tenderest evocations of just what it means to be human and to be hurt and to be healed that is found in contemporary cinema.
Ben Wiley is a retired professor of film and literature at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.