13 year old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) lives off the grid with her father, Will (Ben Foster) deep in a forested national park. Theirs is a simple, quiet life: they live off the land, trading for supplies only when absolutely necessary. They fear discovery, running drills to practice hiding from interlopers. When, inevitably, they are found by the authorities and forced to try and reintegrate into mainstream society, the decisions they must make will change their relationship forever.
Debra Granik’s first fiction feature film since 2010’s superb Winter’s Bone isn’t quite a two-hander but it might as well be, so tight is the focus on the relationship between Will and Tom. Other characters come into and out of their story – a small colony of homeless veterans, a well-meaning Christmas tree farmer (Jeff Kober) who offers them a place to live, the matriarch of a small trailer park community (Dale Dickey, and let’s take a moment to acknowledge her as one of the best character actors working today) – but they’re bit players, background noise to Tom and Will and their shifting dynamic.
But what is that dynamic? That’s something the audience has to pay close attention to. The script, adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, is a sparse one, lean on dialogue and unnecessary exposition. It becomes apparent that Will is a military veteran suffering from catastrophic PTSD to the point where he is all but non-functional in the confines of normal society. For her part, Tom is devoted to her father, but when exposed to the “real” world she doesn’t see it as all that bad – the horrors it holds for him have no effect on her. For Will, though, the modern world is hell.
That’s the essential tension at work in Leave No Trace – Will can’t live a normal life, but Tom could, and their love for each other is preventing that. Crucially, there are no villains present in the narrative, no stone-faced authority figures trying to tear the pair apart. Rather, there’s a succession of helping hands extended that Will feels driven to slap away – to Tom’s growing consternation. Just as crucially, the film refuses to look down on their woodsy lifestyle – it’s not presented as grotesquely impoverished, dirty, or hardscrabble, but rather a fairly harmonious and tranquil existence. Still, we know that for the bright and empathetic Tom, opportunities that would be afforded her in a more mainstream setting are going undiscovered. As it becomes increasingly clear that no compromise is possible – even a trailer home in the woods is too much for Will – tragedy looms.
Excellent performances carry the day, with Foster in top form and newcomer McKenzie doing great work (given Granik “discovered” Jennifer Lawrence with Winter’s Bone, expect a harsh spotlight on McKenzie while this one does the rounds). The intimacy between them feels real and unforced, and so too does their pain. The stripped down script and Granik’s quiet, unfussy camera and editing style mean that the film relies heavily on its actors to capture the audience’s attention, and Leave No Trace is never less than utterly arresting.