One of the unique strengths of film is its ability to impart empathy, transporting us from the insularity of our own experiences to some character or world that, while qualitatively different, appeals to some common experience of human tenderness. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace swells with empathy in its depiction of father Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who have been living “off the grid” in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, only to have their lives uprooted by the outside world in ways both disorienting and welcome.
When we meet them, Will and Tom have carved out a daily routine of basic survival, sustenance, and companionship in a nature preserve on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Granik does not sensationalize the dual challenges and idealism of their pared-down lifestyle, narrowing in on moments of grounded love and courtesy between father and daughter. Will validates and encourages Tom’s handy work, and the pair affirm and thank one other across commonplace interactions (interactions that we’d generally overlook as acts of kindness). The reason for their seclusion is revealed piecemeal, as we learn that Will is a war veteran suffering from PTSD – rattled by nightmares and selling his meds to finance whatever he and Tom may need in added provisions from the outside world.
Despite this tumultuous background, the film is quiet and deliberate in its effect. Granik does not resort to needless exposition on the source of Will’s trauma, and the dialogue throughout the film remains sparse, entrusting the weightiness of Tom and Will’s bond to both actors’ firm command of expressing love, curiosity, and pain through looks alone.
After Tom is spotted by a jogger, a crew of police and social service officials descend on Will and Tom’s camp and take the two into separate custody. Here, it is easy enough to sympathize with the experience of being ripped from one’s home and literal element. Upending expectations, however, is that the world that meets Will and Tom is not villainous or hostile; it’s a place rich with the good intentions of strangers who try to help the two acclimate, even while not altogether understanding their retreatist instinct. A farmer who volunteers to house Will and Tom comments admiringly, “A lot of people like to imagine they could live the way you guys were living.”
Good intentions do not muffle the anxiety and unease that Will, in particular, feels in the mainstream world, and this comes to a head when Tom starts to recognize the community and conveniences absent from their earlier life. “What’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” she acknowledges near the end. Again, Granik lets this revelation unfold in small, quiet moments between father and daughter – a light touch that is all the more affecting in communicating the widening gulf between Will and Tom’s wants and needs.
Captain Fantastic (2016) with Viggo Mortenson attempted a similar storyline (an idealistic father choosing to live with his kids in the woods) but with much more disappointing returns, coming off as preachy and didactic where Leave No Trace is tentative and conflicted. Leave No Trace’s audience reach was regrettably limited, and Granik was owed an Oscar nomination for best director (especially in a line-up so conspicuously lacking in women). The movie is now streaming on NetFlix. Take a night to appreciate this hidden gem, and its impact will stay with you well past what the title suggests.