There are no villains in Leave No Trace. When Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who have been living in solitude in the wilderness, are finally discovered by park rangers and arrested, they’re not being punished. The rangers and social workers, more than just doing their job—it is illegal, after all, to live on government land—are genuinely trying to help them and help integrate them back into a functioning community. The tragedy is that the overarching system is blind and unfeeling, and those who do not perfectly fit are easily discarded. Leave No Trace is a heart-wrenching story about people living on the fringes of society, struggling to survive; but director Debra Granik balances hopelessness with well-earned optimism, crafting a beautiful portrait of marginal communities.
The relationship between Will and Tom is the heart of the film, but there are two parallel, or rather inverse, stories occurring here. There is a story about Tom, who slowly builds connections to the larger world and discovers herself, and there is a story about Will, who slowly withdraws from the world and tries to disappear. Leave No Trace is a complex and emotionally overwhelming film about a father and a daughter growing old and growing apart. McKenzie is already drawing comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, and deservedly so; Granik has discovered another promising actor and guided her into a subtle but shockingly powerful performance. Foster, always dependable and underappreciated, delivers a steely yet fragile counterpoint. The emotions are raw, and Granik cuts deep.
Granik is also exceptional at capturing the essence of a place and a community. The film is populated by real people doing real work, from tree farmers to 4-H youth development leaders. There is an element of documentary work here as Granik showcases real, functioning communities; by doing so, Granik also hones in on a powerful sense of social interconnectedness. With Leave No Trace, Granik has delivered a cinematic poem about the ebb and flow of life, of our relationship to other people and the world around us.
Granik captures this interconnectedness most beautifully through our relationships with animals. Tom is first lured into a larger community by an escaped rabbit, idling on a lone road. She brings the rabbit back its owner and is invited to a 4-H youth club meeting, where kids are learning about rabbit showmanship. She is later attracted by a bee colony and proves a quick study, learning to handle the bees without fear or protective gear. Tom’s attention is often captured by the animals she sees around her, and her relationships to them reflect her curiosity and openness to life in general. They help her develop the tools she needs to socialize and integrate.
Conversely, Will—who spends some time working with the tree farmers but expresses a desire to work in the stables instead—sees only reflections of his own turmoil. Unlike Tom, whose curiosity draws her deeper into the web of life, Will struggles to connect. His one scene with a horse is marked by sadness and defined visually with barriers. Will and the horse stand on opposite sides of a stable gate, representing Will’s inability to cross over and establishing meaningful relationships. And it’s no coincidence that Will’s journey begins and ends with an encounter with a dog, man’s best friend. It is a hunting dog that finds Will in the park and forces him back into civilization, and it is a therapy dog who assists him and waits for him at the end. But despite the help that even the animals provide, Will remains figuratively lost, and cannot find the road back.
Leave No Trace is a heartbreaking film. While living in the park, Will routinely performs drills, forcing his daughter to hide and not get “burned” by leaving footsteps in the dirt or wearing bright socks. They hide their belongings. They move through the park, making sure to leave no trace of their camps. Will is fiercely protective of his daughter. He clearly loves her but also clearly cannot provide her with the kind of life she needs. Will suffers from PTSD and regularly has nightmares. He trades his medication for money. He has buried his demons so deep that Tom does not even know what troubles him. Will’s backstory is deliberately withheld. His story is a direct condemnation of the way America treats its war veterans, a culture that loudly and proudly supports its troops, as long as they’re all the way over there, far away from here, fighting “others.”
But the film is also optimistic. While journeying with her father, drifting from one place to another, Tom develops a deep appreciation of the world around her. Curiosity opens her to possibilities. Through Tom’s story, the film locates a deep and strong sense of empathy. She discovers herself and her needs and makes the necessary connections to start building her own life. She discovers a home in the margins and a family with the people who live there. Leave No Trace is full of warmth and love and an unwavering hope for the people, like Will, who wander in the fringes; it gives a voice to people who rarely have one and aches for the souls who have long since drifted away.