Leave No Trace (2018)
Dir. Debra Granik; Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie
[3 out of 4 stars]
When Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone hit screens in 2010, it was an immediate success. The film won both the dramatic competition grand jury prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, was nominated for four awards at the Oscars, and catapulted young lead Jennifer Lawrence to fame. The setting it depicts is rough and bleak, rough and unforgiving, and the film’s greatest strength lies in its tough, self-sufficient heroine. Granik’s most recent creation — Leave No Trace (2018), adapted from My Abandonment by Peter Rock — depicts a similarly empty landscape with characters who have made the best of and settled into their unusual surroundings and also centers on a fierce female protagonist.
The film opens on a lush green forest, focusing on delicate spider webs and wet ferns. We soon learn that 13-year-old Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) live here, a location that turns out to be Portland, OR. (We at PFR are very excited that we have finally found a film located in one of the Portlands!) Although Will often suffers from nightmares as a result of PTSD from time spent in the military, they are otherwise happy here, chopping mushrooms, playing chess, and reading books. They sell prescription drugs to residents of a nearby tent city and walk into town to buy food. The pair often practice camouflaging themselves — Will critiquing Tom’s work — but nevertheless, one day they are discovered by a runner. They are brought into civilization, questioned, Will put through psychological examinations, and Tom placed in a detention center. The divide between these two and the outside world is immediately clear. One woman asks Tom about the single tent she and her father share, if she feels safe with him, if he has ever touched her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, an idea that never even crossed her mind. When other girls at the detention center ask Tom why she’s there, she says “I wasn’t where I was supposed to be” before correcting herself: “They didn’t think I was where I was supposed to be.” Tom and Will are soon forced to live in a house in a small, rural neighborhood because it is illegal to live in a public park. Tom wants to try to adapt, but Will immediately feels trapped, boxed in not only by the walls but also by what he perceives as the facade of society. At one point, when Tom is encouraging him, saying “We can still think our own thoughts,” he says, “We’re in their clothes. We’re in their house. We’re eating their food. We’re doing their work. We have adapted.”
One of the gifts of this film is the relationship between Tom and Will, a connection so natural that it seems genuine. They do not need to speak to understand each other; Tom need only say “Dad” and Will knows what she is referring to and how to respond. It is clear that the actors have done their work in building a relationship, and both deliver brilliant, raw performances. Every touch, hug, movement seems like an absolutely natural father-daughter relationship. When Tom’s feet get cold and wet, Will sits her down, kneels in front of her, and tucks her feet up under his shirt to warm them. When Tom holds up a candy bar at the grocery store and asks “Want or need?” Will replies “Both.” In turn, Tom sits up with him and rubs his shoulders when he is awakened by nightmares. These little moments indicate their comfort and familiarity with each other. Tom spends a lot of time looking expectantly at her father. Their connection is habit, born of years of living with only each other in complete isolation and each learning to depend on the other.
With such a powerful dynamic, dialogue is often unnecessary. When Tom and Will are moved from their home in the verdant wilderness to a fluorescent brown home, we can feel their discomfort. The portrayal of the woods reflects our protagonists’ moods: light and lush or dark and rainy. Much of the dialogue that is in the film is short sentences between Tom and Will: “I’m hungry.” “Can we play chess?” “Again.” “Dad?” When the cops and social workers show up, their flurry of words is overwhelming, a slew of questions that disrupts the quiet, trusting world Will and Tom have created. Their questions for Tom seem so trivial and easy to answer since nearly every question has the same answer: “Where did you learn to read?” “My dad teaches me.” “Where is your home?” “With my dad.” “Your dad needs to provide you shelter and a place to live.” “He did.” As the film progresses, the dialogue shifts from question and answer, call and response between Tom and Will, to more declarative statements as Tom matures and becomes more independent. Her mind has been broadened by seeing how other people live and, like all teenagers, she is curious and questions her parent’s authority. At one point, she asks Will “Did you even try? Because I can’t tell.” It is unusual that Tom cannot read her father here, and we can see that she, like any teenage girl, is slowly growing up.
Leave No Trace is, at times, heartbreaking and bleak, and often Will and Tom’s only saving grace is that they are not alone. They have each other, and we cannot imagine the story any other way. It’s them against the world, against the bureaucracy questioning them and the world trying to force them to conform when they just don’t fit in. Granik does not explicitly explain anything to the viewers; she simply presents the narrative and allows us to come to our own conclusions about those living on the outskirts of society. There’s a divide, an us and a them, between those who live in cul-de-sacs and attend school and own houses and those who march right into enormous, leafy forests with only small packs on their backs and create a home there. By the end, we aren’t sure what is best for Will or what is best for Tom or if what they each need — the military vet suffering from PTSD and the teenage girl trying to grow up — is the same anymore.