Film review: ‘Leave No Trace’ a story of solitude, solidarity between father and daughter living outside society


“Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s incredible film from a screenplay adapted with Anne Rosellini, features a father and daughter so in sync in their isolated life in the woods outside Portland, Oregon, that they can mostly communicate in silence.

Combat veteran Will (Ben Foster) has trained teenage Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) to be self-sufficient and cognizant of the tools in nature that allow them to survive in the wild. Naturally, she is becoming her own person and sees their world in an increasingly different way than her father, which creates new paradigms in their relationship.

Granik exquisitely focuses on silence as a threat and an asset, capable of bringing both anxiety and peace, and though war is not seen, its effects are still felt, just as people are often avoided but their inevitable intrusion feared.

Foster’s and McKenzie’s characters function in a well-practiced symbiosis, both understanding the fluctuations and facets of their little world, lushly captured through Michael McDonough’s cinematography: the weather and terrain, how to cultivate a garden and make a fire, and when it is necessary to venture into town for supplies.

Will visits the local VA to obtain medication for PTSD which he then sells to local dealers in transient camps for cash; there is an unspoken alliance among the inhabitants of the different camps, many of whom are in desperate need of mental, emotional, or substance-abuse treatment. There is an omnipresent motif of the outsider (by choice, force, or circumstance) which is defended as either an inalienable right or an reflexive defense of someone discarded by society. Will falls in the middle of this as a man deeply affected and still immersed in the experiences he endured in Afghanistan and who has found a hardscrabble and hard-won existence adhering to the laws of nature over man.

Tom is her father’s anchor to the world after her mother died, their world brightened by reading and chess games. She knows how he is feeling before he walks into their camp in a little clearing, just as he can sense when she is being defiant. While he is the provider, she is the caregiver as seen in her tenderness towards the little garden or how she calms him after nightmares. Through their excellent performances, we see how a once-shattered man has been patched back together in ill-fitting pieces and a young girl is slowly blossoming thanks to the tools and training her father has given her. While he has reached a plateau, she is progressing forward.

After a simple mistake causes park rangers to discover their camp, Will and Tom are brought to Social Services for evaluation and placement. These are well-meaning people who want the best situation for both father and daughter, and a tree farmer (Jeff Kober) offers a small house on his property in exchange for Will working for him. Tom is enrolled in school (her academic assessment reveals that she is advanced for her age) and makes friends with a neighbor boy named Isaiah (Isaiah Stone) who brings her to a local 4-H club. All these new things are scary but stimulating to Tom, who likes the idea of showing rabbits or building a tiny house with Isaiah, but loud noises and chopping wood and strange people are overwhelming to Will (who can barely get through a wellness evaluation), and he retreats further inward as Tom begins to venture outward. Her newfound boldness alarms him, who sees it as a threat not only to their bond but to his worldview, and they escape back to the woods.

As they travel northward into Washington state, there is the steadily creeping sense that they can’t go home again, that they can’t regained the delicate balance that was disrupted, and that it might have been illusory from the beginning. Once possessing a stern gravity, Will is increasingly unsteady and rash while Tom becomes more responsible and resourceful. She ultimately realizes that, while she shares her father’s desire to remain outside of mainstream society, they cannot exist alone in the long run. Tom is actually conceptualizing a long run, while Will fights to survive day to day. While there is a heartbreaking realization to be made, there is also a mutual understanding of each other’s singularity and path, whether that is together or apart.

While there is hope for Tom’s future, Will’s outcome — and the larger discussion of veteran support — is uncertain and unsettling by the conclusion, but both Foster and McKenzie display a profound respect for their characters and the journey towards peace that doesn’t always keep them at the same pace.

“Leave No Trace” (2018)

STARRING Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dana Millican, Isaiah Stone, Dale Dickey, Jeff Kober, David Pittman

DIRECTOR Debra Granik