I thought I’d seen this story before: man and child living off the land in the Pacific Northwest—and then of course Big Brother steps in to perturb their bucolic idyll, such as in 2016’s indie heart-warmer “Captain Fantastic.” But though the story beats may be similar, Debra Granik’s film “Leave No Trace” proves how much a quiet, thoughtful sensibility from the director and committed performances from the actors can positively impact a film.
Will (played by a soulful Ben Foster) lives inside Forest Park outside Portland, Oregon, with his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). There’s care put into showing their existence in the first act; we don’t get a montage showing the father and daughter laughing and picking berries, or even a summary explanation of why they’re living there. Instead, there are a few sparse scenes demonstrating the strong father/daughter relationship: Will showing Tom how to cook a mushroom with a solar-powered apparatus, and a few words are exchanged as they try to start a fire. The quiet efficiency of these establishing scenes helps us to believe in our characters before a major change occurs.
The two go into town for a few errands. At the V.A. Hospital, Tom waits in the lobby, while her father Will goes in to get pills. There’s a man standing at a table with pamphlets and knicknacks—he gives her a coin commemorating family members struggling with trauma. Tom picks up a red zip tie from the table. “It’s a gun lock,” the man says, “Gives your family member time to think before they commit to something worse.”
“Leave No Trace” doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that it’s about trauma. There’s a subtle, quiet construction that hints at what’s beneath the surface, but isn’t overbearing.
Will and Tom are soon caught and funneled into a simultaneously caring and cold social services system. It’s difficult watching sympathetic, flawed people struggle with the realities of the modern life that they’d tried so hard to escape.
Will struggles with the past, he’s restless, and the temporary home and life he’s provided make him skittish. As Tom begins to meet other people and learn about the outside world, her father becomes ever more insular. The conflict, between a father in deep pain and a daughter who’s never known life around other people, threatens to tear them apart. “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” Tom says, in a particularly moving scene. That realization—that her father is hurt in a way that might not be fixable—is heartbreaking and real.
“Leave No Trace” has a certain warranted distaste for the modern world. Granik calls attention to people taking selfies with iPhones with a fake camera noise that is extremely loud. Ben Foster’s character rejects the phone—his subsequent attempts to recreate the edenic world he and Tom used to live in is quixotic, but believable. I didn’t think he would be successful, but I was rooting for him.
The theme of living with trauma continues to surface throughout the film. Solitude and silence, coins, and animals are offered as ways of relieving tension and dark thoughts. But it’s not heavy-handed in its approach—resolution isn’t easily found, and it’s that real-world difficulty that makes the film and its characters so compelling.
In the end, a solution is offered—or put forth for us to mull over. Can there be a halfway point between our zonked-out internet society and living completely by yourself? Are some people too far gone to ever recover from their trauma? While “Leave No Trace” doesn’t definitively answer these questions, it does broach them in a quiet, deliberate, empathetic way. Granik deftly explored these themes without seeming preachy, tacky or disconnected.
Granik, a Brandeis alum, was in attendance for a screening this past Friday in the Wasserman Cinematheque. She spoke on the powerful sense of place the film, and the Ozarks of her previous “Winter’s Bone,” developed. “I’m from nowhere,” she said, explaining that she’d grown up in the suburbs, which made her interested in exploring places that had identity.
She also spoke on how difficult it is to make a film with a young heroine who isn’t hypersexualized, how the films she saw growing up that featured women in a coming-of-age role all involved them having sex or getting pregnant. Instead, her goal was to create a young female protagonist and get people “to care about what’s going on between her ears,” instead of her body.
“Leave No Trace” is a slow, empathetic movie dealing with heavy themes in a realistic way. It’s quiet and contemplative, and worth watching.