Leave No Trace, a compelling film, evokes hope, fear, loss
Leave No Trace (2018) opens in stunning verdant woodlands, an idyllic world, in which a father, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are gathering edibles for their evening meal. Birds chirp, ferns and leaves softly rustle in the wind, spider webs glisten and the natural setting provides comfort. They are self-sufficient and content, and begin preparing a simple meal after they return to their peaceful campsite. Dialogue is minimal. Father and daughter don’t need a lot of words to communicate. Only the practice drill called by Will alerts us that they are in hiding. Will’s reaction, in a dream it appears, to the subtle sound of a helicopter suggests, though, that he is haunted by battle-related PTSD. It’s also clear they have been living off the grid for quite some time. This isn’t just a camping trip.
Their dreamworld crashes when Tom makes a tiny mistake, resulting in their discovery by park rangers. They both are given a battery of psychological tests by sympathetic social workers, and end up being placed in a modest home on farmland. To Will, these four walls aren’t home. About the campsite that was destroyed by park officials, he laments, “They just don’t understand that it was my home.”
At first Tom also is uncomfortable in the more conventional surroundings. Then, she tentatively takes steps towards friendships, interacting with young members of the 4H Club. But Will wrestles with demons. This change in their lives doesn’t work for him.
When Will insists that they pack up and leave, Tom complies but questions, “Dad, why are we doing this?” Still, very few words pass between them before they journey on a bus. They end up in a different forest, this one darker, colder, wetter, with a foreboding atmosphere and distant thunder. Their apparent bucolic life has been replaced by one fraught with danger. Instead of admiring Will for his independence and determination to raise his daughter free from convention, we begin to doubt his choices. He is placing himself and his daughter in jeopardy.
This film is directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, Stray Dog, Down to the Bone) and written by Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini (Winter’s Bone, Down to the Bone). It is based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, which is based on a true story of a father and daughter found living in the deep woods near Portland, Oregon.
Leave No Trace has the look and feel of a fable, a narration to explore classic themes of fear and hope, freedom and constriction, parents and children, and how we define “home” and “family.” Tom is contented and free-spirited in the beginning. As the film concludes, she has the persona of a troubled adult, and Will, who seemed nurturing and strong, may just be too broken.
The pace of the film is slow, almost leisurely, giving us time to ponder about why Will is so damaged. He maintains his silence, never sharing the precise cause of his pain with Tom, the social workers, or the few people who take them under their wings. It’s up to us to reflect on returning soldiers, the missions they were sent on and how society responds to them on return. Whether nature can offer solace and safe shelter to those thrust to the margins of society is an open-ended question.
Director of Photography Michael McDonough, who was Granik’s cinematographer for Winter’s Bone, skillfully captures the rugged beauty of the rainy Pacific Northwest, showing at times how the outsized trees and abundance of greenery diminish people almost to insignificance.
Composer Dickon Hinchliffe, who scored Winter’s Bone, creates a wonderful musical backdrop in this film. Says director Granik, “He knows that I love to leave breathing room for viewers to calibrate and decipher their own emotion.”
Ben Foster, recently in one of my top films, Hell or High Water, reflects, “Although dealing with difficult circumstances, this was a very hopeful script about trying to do the right thing - and I hadn’t been reading a lot of scripts that made me feel very hopeful.”
You can catch a glimpse of the film in the trailer: https://youtu.be/_07ktacEGo8
In Albuquerque, “Leave No Trace” opens on Friday, July 13, at the High Ridge Theater 8 and at Cinemark 14 Downtown.
Photo credits: Scott Green/Bleecker Street