Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik, 2018) – A war veteran and his teenage daughter have been living off the grid for years until a mistake costs them their idyllic lives.
Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) barely speak a word as they go about their day – gathering wood, playing chess, and reading. The quietude of their lives feels like a vignette of the past, away from the city bustle that we are used to.
There is no electricity, hot water or digital screens. Neither is there the pressure of the daily grind to upkeep these conveniences. Their only compromise on modernity comes in a propane gas stove and their routine trip to the grocery store.
This choice to reside within an urban park is not a political statement or borne out of poverty. In fact, it almost seems ideal. Who wouldn’t want to escape from the weight of society’s endless demands? But this rejection of conformity comes from a far more difficult place.
Will is revealed to be a PTSD-stricken veteran, who struggles with re-integrating back into society. For Tom, it is the only life she has ever known. While we learn little more details about them, the emotive portrayal of Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie expel the need for exposition with their authentic performances that evoke empathy for their predicament.
Leave No Trace is their coming-of-age story, but not a typical one. Debra Granik challenges the notion of a dysfunctional family and explores the pains of an inevitable confrontation. Will is a good father and Tom, a loving daughter. Yet they are unable to see how damaging their actions are to each other – him keeping her from a normal life, her sheltering him from seeking help.
Their non-conformity is an escape, but a temporary one. It all comes to an end when they are spotted in a park. Social services soon get involved, pulling them out of isolation and assessing them before finding them a new home.
Do you have difficulty enjoying things? Have you felt distant or cut off from people? Are you unable to have sad or loving feelings?
The questions that Will face frustrate him. They seem to assume that he must be troubled or depressed to have chosen his way of life. Perhaps he is also angry because he is finally being forced to face the issues that he has tried hard to avoid, and is unable to admit to any of it.
On the other hand, Tom begins to discover a life of her own. She starts to learn about possibilities beyond mere survival and considers a future for herself, even if she understands that what is good for her isn’t necessarily best for him.
Their paths begin to diverge out of necessity, marking a heartbreaking turning point in both their lives. It is a deeply affecting journey with emotionally devastating costs, evoking empathy for both father and daughter in the tough choices they eventually make.
A moving character study, Leave No Trace explores the unseen mental strife of those inadvertently left behind by a fast-changing society.