We can still think our own thoughts.
It’s easy to depict PTSD-suffering war veterans as unstable, dangerous, and beyond help from inevitable tragedy. This depiction has sadly become the Hollywood norm to conjure volatile dramatics devoid of the empathy those struggling to combat their demons deserve. If anyone could supply the necessary humanity to portray that plight, writer/director Debra Granik is she. Never afraid to take exploitation-free narratives into the desperate yet manageable rural squalor (relatively speaking) of mid-west locales—blind spots to the narrow vantage of urban dwellers (see Winter’s Bone)—Granik goes completely off-the-grid here with her adaptation (alongside regular screenwriting partner Anne Rosellini) of Peter Rock‘s novel My Abandonment entitled Leave No Trace. For Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), the trees of an Oregon state park prove their best home.
This was the life he could provide her after her mother passed. Or at least that’s what we glean from the circumstances as presented via honest dialogue recalling past hope and cementing present paranoia. Unable to re-assimilate into society, he took his child to the forest and away from laws that would have set him up to fail. It’s there that he raised her to be a self-sufficient young woman able to survive on her own despite limited provisions, focusing enough on education to place her well beyond the target ability for her age. Forced to move constantly so as not to be caught by rangers, Tom’s sole deficiency is a lack of community and social interaction. Fearing strangers as potential threats to independence, any sighting demands escape.
But while Will is forever on his toes and listening—using his skills as a soldier for extreme vigilance—Tom is just a teenager prone to lapses of judgment and sentimentality. Rather than treat a close call of being seen as motivation to move camp, she’d rather hope she hid well enough to remain on the site wherein she’s put down invisible roots. No kid wants to move and we have to assume Tom’s done it more than anyone could imagine. And maybe she believes they can stay if they’re able to explain that they were living off the land by choice rather than necessity. That of course is impossible. And as soon as they’re located, the bureaucratic dance that sparks by being “in the system” commences.
It’s here where the film truly begins. Watching how Will and Tom live is merely a prologue to understand their characters’ ambitions. It’s about experiencing their love, equality, and diligence: witnessing the tail end of a nightmare to know where Will stands and a relevant example of yearning on behalf of Tom for a necklace her dad will let her keep if no one reclaims it by the time they return from a visit into town. There’s the VA hospital, the means by which they procure money, and the growing discontent of a youngster desperate for a more lenient existence than their current run of scrimping. We learn he’ll always have to come back and that every taste of civilization adds to the possibility she won’t.
This is the moment on their thus far mutual journey that shows it can’t go on forever. At a certain point in every child’s life, he/she must exit the shadow of his/her parents’ control and safety net. Tom will always be his daughter, but she cannot always be the follower. It’s a natural progression we can infer begun long ago and was stunted by the desire to protect her father as much as he protects her. We’re watching dual co-dependencies wherein Tom needs him as a reminder of what must be done to sustain their lifestyle and Will needs her to remember what it is he has to live for. And it works when they’re the only two in a tent located miles away from disturbances and distractions.
So what happens when they’re forced to adhere to society’s rules? What happens when they’re the only two people in an RV on a farm that’s nearby a whole new world never before open to Tom’s dreams? Suddenly they become barriers to each other’s wants and desires despite being just as close as before. The temporary housing provided to them by a charitable farmer (Jeff Kober) at the request of their social worker (Dana Millican) becomes a purgatory of sorts—a waiting room to decide what to do next. He’s of course itching to leave this sensory overload behind him for the calm serenity of nature while she wonders about whether they could make it work. She realizes the advantage of those things that he deems hindrances.
Granik has always facilitated the space for her actors to deliver heart-wrenching performances that strip away celebrity to reveal the complicated souls beneath. She does it both by hiring raw newcomers (McKenzie is as good as Jennifer Lawrence was in her breakthrough Winter’s Bone role) and using amateurs who fit the environments, occupations, and cultural psychology she utilizes as the backdrop to her stories. There’s a wonderful moment between a male (assumedly non-actor) social worker and Foster’s Will that overflows with enough compassion to choke you up with just six words: “Are you proud of your daughter?” After being drilled with questions he cannot answer without feeling the pain of his past, this man enters with understanding to disarm Will, earning his trust to prove he isn’t alone.
It may seem like a small moment in the grand scheme of things, but the power it holds to quiet Will’s anxiety and prepare him for the next step is unquantifiable. This is what I mean when I talk about Granik’s mastery at crafting plots with deliberate trajectories that never feel anything short of real. Rather than watch Will and Tom struggle towards an ending, they’re shown making honest choices that lead them forward to an unknown destination. How would they each react to the kindness of strangers? How would they differ, acquiesce, and protest? Granik and Rosellini have a knack of letting their characters write their own story through actions so nobody can pretend to find a single false note along the path of bittersweet sincerity.
Leave No Trace therefore asks the tough questions and accepts tougher answers. It allows complex characters to speak with their hearts louder than their minds because life isn’t a fairy tale. There’s no fix to what ails Will and none to satisfy Tom’s desire to build an identity removed from his. And we see the pain of this reality on Foster and McKenzie’s faces throughout. It’s helplessness mixed with guilt—a need for the other’s full attention and the sorrow that understandable selfishness produces. These are two empathetic people reconciling the fact their boundless love is no match for the widening chasm of personal urgency between them. While they’ll always be each other’s “home” regardless of walls or proximity, that truth is as devastating as it is inspirational.
[1-3] courtesy of Scott Green / Bleecker Street Media