Leave No Trace tells the powerful story of Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who have escaped the modern world to live in idyllic isolation inside a National Park. They’re the ultimate survivalists who prefer this way of living over the societal norm, which they consider unsatisfying and unnecessary. Instead, they forge for most of their food, sleep in a tent under the stars, and only make the trek into the city to pick up resources they feel they absolutely need.
While Will and Tom have an incredibly close bond, there are definitely some noticeable cracks in their facade. Will, a veteran of the Iraq War, keeps his struggles with PTSD from his daughter and sells his prescription medication to other veterans for cash. He has recurring nightmares and is paranoid to a fault during the daytime, making Tom run drills to test her hiding abilities in case anyone were to try and find them.
Despite his careful planning, Will is ultimately unprepared when authorities manage to track him and Tom down in the woods, and the two are taken into custody. Social Services places the pair in a house on a farm, where Will is expected to work the land on the pine tree settlement. Meanwhile, Tom is enrolled in school and develops an interest in the local 4-H club. It soon becomes clear that while Tom has embraced their return to society, Will is deeply unsatisfied and longs for the safe, comfortable seclusion of their forest dwelling again. One morning, he wakes Tom and tells her they’re leaving to go seek a new isolated retreat elsewhere. Although she doesn’t want to leave, Tom fears separation from her father, and so she abandons her home to withdraw from society once again.
Writer and director Debra Granik adapted the film from Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, which was inspired by a true story about a father and daughter caught living off-the-grid in Forest Park. While staying true to the original story’s themes and narrative, Granik also added her own unique touch by stating outright that the father, Will, is suffering from post-combat trauma and cannot cope with traditional life like he once could. Thus, he’s retreated into the woods and forces his daughter to live this isolated and extremely sheltered existence he finds himself drawn to.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this film is the way in which it portrays the gradual shifts felt in the relationship between Will and Tom. At the very beginning, while living their sheltered lifestyle together, the two are inseparable and impossibly connected on a level that perhaps some fathers and daughters can only wish to achieve one day. However, as the movie progresses and the two find their wants and ideals diverging significantly, we bear witness to the gradual crumbling of their once impregnable bond.
The movie is told as a surprisingly gentle and muted drama. From start to finish, Leave No Trace offers a calm but uniquely powerful narrative on the human experience and how far we’ve come from our hunting-and-gathering roots. Although not directly, it asks the viewers to examine their own way of living and compare that to the minimalist existence Will and Tom lead. Is one really better than the other?
Ben Foster is an absolute standout in his portrayal of a man who has experienced such unimaginable trauma that he’s essentially been pushed to live on the very fringe of society. He relates to nature, he understands nature and he feels comfortable there, and so this wooded isolation has quickly become the only way of living he feels he can cope with. Watching Will struggle to re-embrace modern society while battling his demons is heartbreaking and immensely compelling.
Providing another fantastic performance is Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. The entire movie, much like the source material, is told from her character Tom’s perspective, so we’re left with a fairly quiet and innocent lens to look at this situation through. She’s only really just begun her teenage years and isn’t quite old enough yet to truly understand everything that happens around her, but she has an eagerness and willingness to explore and embrace her surroundings, traits that her father has long since lost himself. While he’s guarded and unwilling to trust anyone, she’s ready to see and experience everything life has to offer. He seeks the comfort of seclusion and she just wants to settle down somewhere and be a teenager. The ever-changing family dynamic between these two is fascinating to witness.
Overall, this film is a deeply enthralling coming-of-age story about a young girl trying to find her place in the world, and her father, who’s already decided where his is. Once tethered by an unbreakable bond, the two struggle to understand each other and must attempt to overcome one question that has become a giant hurdle dividing them: where is home? ~Caitlyn Clancey
DVD Special Features:
Deleted Scenes – The DVD includes two deleted scenes: “Social Media and Slugs,” which has Tom explain to a girl in social services how to prepare and eat a banana slug, and “Kryss and Gus,” a scene in which Tom interacts with a horse trainer and her horse, Gus.
Behind-the-Scenes Vignettes – A behind-the-scenes look at several prominent moments from the film, such as when Tom first interacts with a beekeeper and her hundreds of bees, and the scene featuring real-life 4-H club members and their rabbits.
Creating Leave No Trace – Film director and writer Debra Granik explains her vision behind Leave No Trace and her desire to tell a minimalist story, preferring to portray real, unprivileged people in her movies. We also hear from Foster and McKenzie about the training they underwent to convincingly play expert survivalists in the film.