Will and his daughter Tom live in the wilderness, but their lives are wholly civilized. They exchange frequent please and thank yous, subscribe to an organized system of cooking and cleanliness, and adopt rigorous procedures and protocols to keep their existence shrouded away beneath the leafy Oregon trees. Had this PTSD-crippled vet and his curious but quiet daughter been living in standard Portland suburb, we might think their behaviors to be overbearing and needlessly strict. But “Leave No Trace” doesn’t criticize this dad and daughter for their “Walden”-inspired existence. Rather, the film examines the responsibilities of parenthood and how they stay intact when parent and child are trudging down two different paths.
It’s a haunting film because it forces us to question long-adopted societal guidelines vs. shocking displays of rugged independence. Tom (played with wandering grace by Thomasin McKenzie) is more than capable enough to survive in the woods on her own. She’s as handy with a knife as other girls her age would be with an iPhone, a natural bookworm and student of the earth despite her lack of a formal city education. We can easily imagine Tom happily building a wilderness community in her adult years, living off of fruit and if she was never forced to leave the forest.
The problem, though, is that this is not the life that Tom has chosen for herself. Her dad Will (a gripping Ben Foster) is a reserved, misanthropic veteran still tortured by the memories of his military experience. The specific reason why Will left society is unstated, but it’s clear after being discharged, he could no longer carry with a concrete civilian life anymore. And with Tom’s mom no longer in the picture, Will has full ability to push his admiration for the open wilderness on his daughter. Technically what the elder Will is doing is a cross between coercion, manipulation, and abuse, since the adolescent Tom hasn’t fully realized her ability to stay with or leave her dad. But it never feels that way in the film, their relationship intertwined with unyielding support and unshakable trust.
Only when Tom makes a rookie mistake of being spotted by an outsider does “Leave No Trace” dive head-on into this strained relationship. Dad and daughter are forced by authorities to leave the forest, settling down in a Good samaritan’s guest house that’s still outdoorsy but with four too many walls to be fully comfortable. Tom makes efforts to adjust, meeting children her age at extracurricular activities, while Will is determined to rebel, exchanging as few words as possible with state representatives who are looking out for his and Tom’s best interest. It becomes achingly clear that Tom is the true adult in the relationship, encouraging her undeveloped father to embrace their new life like a parent trying to persuade their child to make friends at their new school. Even when Will is calling the shots, Tom is still running the show: A semi-truck driver refuses to transport the pair until he gets the a-okay from Tom that this is what she really wants.
It’s a subdued film that relies on camerawork rather than dialogue to exemplify Will and Tom’s growing distance. They sleep side-by-side and walk shoulder-to-shoulder at the beginning of the film, but when they’re forced to leave their home, Tom is often seen yards away from Will almost like a lost child until Will appears again. Often times there is some sort of physical or spatial barrier in-between them, like a dinner table or separate seats on a bus. They’re still within eyesight, but not within arm’s reach.
Their separation is also emphasized by their increasing lack of survival knowledge and reliance on other individuals. When they both become injured miles away from any urban medical facilities, neither has the necessary training to fully treat the other. And when Tom finds herself welcomed by strangers, she’s baffled by their generosity in the face of her attempts to be independent. One scene, where Tom is cutting up mushrooms with a kitchen knife as Will watches from the other side of the table, exemplifies this split perfectly. Tom feels no remorse that she is using a knife for the domestic tradition of chopping food rather than the valiant act splitting wood for a campfire. But Will is visibly disgusted by the display, viewing each chop as another step in Tom’s recession into the great indoors.
It’s a remarkable film that makes us question our own fascination with nature and what cause, if any, can completely justify such a wild display of rugged individualism. Director Debra Granik presents a compelling story where people are so intensely guided by their belief systems that they forgot what their true motivations were in the first place. When at a government facility, one girl teases Tom for being homeless. Tom is initially offended, but starts to wonder if her outdoor hut was really a “home,” and if anyone has the authority to determine that definition.