It is not that Will is a bad father. He is caring, he looks after his daughter’s physical needs. He teaches her self-reliance, and her intelligence and resilience clearly indicate that he’s done a lot of things very well. In fact, if he hadn’t done such a good job of raising his daughter, she might never find the strength to tell him that he cannot take her with him.
Looked at from one side, Leave No Trace (by Debra Granik, of Winter’s Bone fame) is a love story, and an unusual one at that. It depicts the love between thirteen-year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster, barely recognisable from his Six Feet Under days). At the beginning of the film, the two live in a public park outside Portland, Oregon – which sounds a lot more domesticated than it actually is, as the park is basically a dense forest into which two people can easily vanish. While the film doesn’t spell out exactly how they got there or how long they’d been living there, it tells us enough so we can fill in the blanks. Will is an Iraq War veteran, widower and PTSD sufferer, and while he is highly functional as a peaceful survivalist, it is clear that he is barely able to hold it together in the confines of modern society. Will teaches his daughter daily how to survive in the isolation of the woods, and the two only enter the nearby town when they need new supplies. Other than that, it’s just the two of them.
In a different story, the wilderness that Will and Tom live in would be depicted as idyllic, as a counter to the narrow, confusing demands and restrictions of society. But when the two of them are found by police, taken into custody and provided with housing rural Oregon, Tom receives a glimpse of what she’s been missing: first and foremost, other people. People who will take her for who she is and who may come to care for her without asking her to give up an entire possible life. For years, it’s been her father and herself, and while life apart from society has been harsh at times she’s felt safe with the man whose sole purpose in life was to keep her safe. Meeting neighbours and other people her own age, though, it is almost as if Tom feels a sensorium awaken that she never even knew she had. Will, meanwhile, tries to be strong for his daughter and put up with the new situation, but it soon becomes clear that he is still too much of an open wound to live among others. Alone in the woods with his daughter, he is resourceful and strong; back among human beings, he barely has the strength to keep it together.
This is where the flip side of the love story emerges and Leave No Trace becomes the story of a tragic but necessary emancipation. Early one morning, Will wakes up his daughter, tells her to take the bare essentials, and they’re on the road again. Yet where before, in the woodland park, their life seemed a conscious choice, it now resembles nothing as much as flight – and Tom recognises it as that. Will hasn’t taken her away from everything because she’s better off there but because he cannot function when he’s required to be around other people. When she asks him what their plan is, she already knows he cannot provide an answer – and he can no longer keep up the illusion that he is keeping her safe. They almost freeze to death during an especially cold night, and then, after they find an unoccupied cabin the next day, Will sets out to get supplies and doesn’t come back. When Tom goes to look for him, she finds him barely conscious at the bottom of a slope after a bad fall.
Gradually, their roles shift. Now it is Tom who looks after both herself and her father, because Will cannot. The love between the two, expressed in the immense care these two largely wordless individuals take with each other, isn’t enough, because, as Tom has come to recognise, her father’s protectiveness of her is closely interwoven with his inability to be with others. As long as he carries his trauma with him, as long as that wound inside him isn’t addressed, he isn’t keeping her safe, he is keeping her isolated. He is stunting her growth as a person.
It is easy to imagine a version of this film in which Tom helps Will heal and the two find a middle ground between her needs and his, but Leave No Trace isn’t that kind of story. There is a commendable frankness in the way that the film suggests that a parent and their child can love each other dearly but it may not always be possible to find a way to reconcile what they both need and what sacrifices they can be asked to make for the other. Granik and her actors find ways of telling this story with both honesty and gentleness. This is a film that is strongest in its most quiet moments, but for all this it is certain to leave a trace.