Writer-director Debra Granik’s incisive and affecting new drama, Leave No Trace, begins within the hushed, verdant cathedral of Portland, Ore.’s Forest Park, one of the largest urban forest reserves in America. Among the towering, second-growth conifers and damp ferns, a family of two ekes out a low-impact existence, subsisting (to the greatest extent possible) on the fruits of their environment. Father Will (Ben Foster) shows his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) how to feather a twig with a pocketknife – improving its utility as a fire starter – and how to slow-cook wild mushrooms in a crude solar stove made of aluminum foil. These are not weekend diversions for Will and Tom: They are living within the park illegally, as off-the-grid as a pair of people can be while still residing in the city limits of a major municipality. Such is Will’s resolve to remain undiscovered that he instructs Tom how to cover her footprints as they traverse the thickets, and stages mock hide-and-seek drills where they practice concealing themselves from others.
The reason that father and daughter have adopted this “voluntarily unhoused” lifestyle is never fully elaborated on. However, that ambiguity never scans as coyness on the part of Granik’s powerfully reserved screenplay, which was co-written with her frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini and adapted from a 2010 novel by Peter Rock. Will is a Marine veteran who is plainly afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and stray details late in the film indicate that his unit has suffered from an unusually high rate of suicide. Otherwise, Granik and Rosellini present Will’s mental health issues as amorphous. At the same time, however, Will's demons are depicted as utterly overwhelming. He has no desire to re-enter society, and has organized his existence around the twin pillars – manias, one might say – of isolation from others and protectiveness towards his daughter.
At the day-to-day level, however, Will can be ruthlessly pragmatic, and he is not above exploiting the outside world when necessary. When Tom complains of growing hunger, the pair make a foray into the city – a semi-regular occurrence, it is implied – so that Will can obtain prescription medications from the Veterans Administration. He then hocks these pills to other squatters in the park, and uses the cash to procure a modest load of non-perishable groceries. It’s a risky gambit, but the real threat to the family’s isolation is more banal, as it turns out. A trail jogger glimpses Tom one day and then alerts the park rangers, who in turn use dogs to chase her and her father down through the dense undergrowth. Will and Tom are captured and immediately separated, beginning a bureaucratic ordeal as they are hustled through the state’s family services agency.
The film’s opening 25 minutes or so are crucial for establishing Will and Tom’s devoted relationship and the rustic, faintly paranoid specifics of their daily activities. Leave No Trace is not truly the story of their life within the park, however, but the tale of what happens afterwards, as the pair undergo a series of fumbling, ultimately futile attempts to reintegrate into civilization. Tom, for her part, slowly warms to the outside world. Not its comforts, exactly – she is far too much her father’s daughter for that – but its sense of stability and community. She finds solace in the rural settings that they migrate through, taking fresh-eyed pleasure in the mundane details of a simple but connected life: a 4-H rabbit club for teenagers; ribbon-twirling praise dancers at a country church; an RV-park beekeeper who instructs Tom on how to safely handle the hives.
Will, however, finds that he is unable to change, or even to accept freely-offered charity and conviviality from others. His world is bifurcated into two groups: He and Tom on one side, and the untrustworthy remainder of the world on the other. (He speaks contemptuously of “their house, their clothes, their food, their work”; “their” being everyone who is not Will and Tom.) Granik’s feature is, at bottom, a tragedy. Will is simply too mentally scarred to resolve the conflict that gradually and inexorably arises between his compulsion to separate himself from society and his desire to ensure his daughter’s well-being. For years, his understanding of the latter revolved around physical safety and basic education, but once forcibly removed from the park, Tom develops an emotional need for community that Will is unable to satisfy.
The bond between father and daughter eventually begins to fray. Tom’s intense love and gratefulness is such that she never flings accusations of selfishness at her father, even as they sneak out of their umpteenth makeshift home to once again hit the road. She recognizes that his obsession with a nomadic, alienated existence, however unreasonable it might seem, is not rooted in ego, but in trauma. (Will quits a job at a Christmas tree farm because the sound of the helicopters lifting harvested trees is simply too much for his fevered mind to bear.) Eventually, even Tom's tolerance reaches its limit, her affection for her father notwithstanding: “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
It’s been eight years since Granik made an Oscar-nominated splash (and a star out of Jennifer Lawrence) with her last narrative feature, Winter’s Bone. While Leave No Trace exists within a similar indie drama space – one focused on neglected people living on the hardscrabble margins of America – Granik’s new feature is a different animal than her 2010 film. Where Winter’s Bone used its backwoods Ozark setting in the service of a horror-tinged Hero’s Journey, Leave No Trace is a work of weary physical and psychological realism, comparable to those of fellow American auteur Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women).
Almost a decade away from narrative features hasn’t diminished Granik’s formidable talent behind the camera, her deep emotional sensitivity, or her genuine fascination with a slower, forgotten kind of American life. Indeed, Stray Dog, the director’s 2014 documentary of Vietnam veteran Ronnie Hall, is echoed in many of Leave No Trace’s elements, including Will’s PTSD and the cozy RV community where he and Tom find themselves later in the film. As she did with the Ozark folk musicians in Winter’s Bone, Granik exhibits an earnest regard for the unpretentious yet passionate pursuits of her rural characters. In a certain stripe of snotty Sundance dramedy, the viewer would be invited to snicker at the church praise dancers, for example; Granik uses the scene to convey Tom’s low-key wonder at all the idiosyncrasies of American culture that have been hidden from her.
This is essential to the fundamental tragedy at the heart of Leave No Trace, as the viewer shares in Tom’s growing affection for all the marvelous textures and friendship that the wider world offers. While the film is undeniably sympathetic to Will, it’s Tom who is ultimately the story’s point-of-view character. The director and young actress McKenzie – whose performance is commendably raw yet somehow understated throughout – splendidly convey the swelling glut of anxiety, anger, and sorrow that threatens to overwhelm Tom’s previously unconditional willingness to follow her father off a cliff. One can feel the inevitable anguish of the film’s conclusion approaching from far off; a distant, rumbling thunder that signals Will and Tom’s dilemma cannot be resolved without terrible pain. Nonetheless, when the moment finally arrives, it is utterly heartfelt and devastating, a perfect punctuation mark that feels at once authentic and narratively satisfying.
Leave No Trace is an unhurried and naturalistic film, an attitude that is wholly expected given the material, but nonetheless executed with discernment and elegance. Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough rely on hand-held camera work and a cool palette of grays, blues, and greens that fits snugly with the story’s coastal Pacific Northwest setting. The production design by Chad Keith is wonderfully lived-in and authentic, making particularly excellent use of existing locations like a weather-beaten rabbit farm or a crazy-quilt RV park to conjure the sense of warmth that Tom craves. Erin Aldridge Orr’s costumes are also essential, conveying a rumpled, chilly Oregonian vibe without straying into the fussed-over polish of a Land’s End catalog.
Ultimately, however, this is a film that is powered less by striking formal choices than by its performances and screenplay, and on that score it’s a deeply moving work. Foster is all walled-up anguish in a role that could have come off as faintly menacing, were it not for the pitiable desperation that he imparts to Will’s every questionable choice. The rapport that Foster has with McKenzie is critical, given that the relationship between their characters is so central to the story. The pair of them are remarkably convincing as tight-knit father and daughter, often communicating by glances and gestures rather than words. When they finally spill out, the words tend to be blunt and lingering. “Did you even try?” an exhausted Tom asks her father after an abrupt return to transience, “Because I can’t even tell.”
Leave No Trace is essentially devoid of sinister characters, a refreshing change of pace for a story about people dwelling on the fringes of society. There are no opportunistic predators who reaffirm Will’s distrust and fanatical self-reliance; the people that he and Tom meet are, by-and-large, fair-minded and compassionate folk. Distinctive and capable character actors appear in key supporting roles, including Jeff Kober (Sully) as the tree farm owner and Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water) as the RV park manager, but the film rests overwhelmingly on Foster and McKenzie’s shoulders. Granik has reimagined a familar tale of parent-child separation – in terms of divergent needs, rather than physical distance or emotional disconnection – within a fraught, survival-driven framework. This renders Leave No Trace acutely resonant, while also unobtrusively touching on broader issues that are typically underserved by most mainstream cinema: veterans, mental health, homelessness, state bureaucracy, and public land policy. Above all, Leave No Trace signals a welcome return to narrative filmmaking for Granik, vividly illustrating that her humane voice is a sorely needed balm in these cruel times.