Leave No Trace: Homeless dad-and-daughter tale, an affecting breaking-point metaphor

By Karen Gordon

Rating: A

We’ve waited a long time to see American indie director Debra Granik follow up her 2010 multiple-Oscar-nominated film Winter's Bone (the film that effectively launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence). With Leave No Trace she returns with a quiet, beautiful film about an oft-neglected side of America and its psyche. 

Leave No Trace is based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, which in turn is based on a true story.  And as with Winter’s Bone, Granik co-wrote the script with Anne Rosellini

Ben Foster plays Will, a single father raising his teenage daughter Tom (played by New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in a most unconventional way. They live illegally, in a kind of lean-to, in a nature preserve on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. There’s a bit of money for necessities, but mostly they forage for food, and avoid other people.  

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster are a lost daughter-and-father in Leave No Trace

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster are a lost daughter-and-father in Leave No Trace

Will is an attentive father. He home-schools her and runs through surprise drills to teach her how to hide in case the police come looking for them.

How did they get there? How long have they lived that way? Where’s Tom’s mother?  

We get hints to only one of the answers.  Much of their back story is left mysterious. 

We learn that Will is a veteran suffering from PTSD. And we are left to guess that this is his best way of coping and taking care of his daughter. As for Tom, she’s a quiet, sensitive soul, who’s bonded with her dad.  She’s somewhere in her mid-teens, but the film avoids telling us exactly how old she is.  What she makes of this arrangement is also not clear.  She seems to take living in a wilderness, without running water, in stride.  There’s no sense that either of them are making big plans for her future. 

The story turns when she’s seen by a jogger, and the police come for them.  Will and Tom are taken by social services, who find them a place to stay.  Everyone is kind and concerned.  It gives Tom a bit of time to socialize with kids her age.  Just a few. But it must trigger a change in her, mustn’t it? 

There are no extraordinary wishes for a better life, and no enemies in Leave No Trace.  

Granik achieves a level of forward motion in her story-telling without creating a push-pull between the protagonists and an antagonist who wants to civilize them against their will. It’s clear that WIll doesn’t have proper coping mechanisms. But again, there are no histrionics. And if Tom yearns for an iPhone and a gang of friends to meet her at the mall, we don’t really see that.

Rather one thing follows another. Tom’s life is shaped by Will’s traumas and limitations, and we don’t need to know her age to get that this can’t go on forever. 

To do something this delicate needs an impeccable cast. And Granik has cast beautifully. Ben Foster has already proven himself one of the best character actors of his generation. People talk about his roles in terms of intensity, yet he never uses that quality to pull the focus of the film in his direction. There’s always a lot going on beneath the skin of his characters, and he lets you in just in the right places. 

In Leave No Trace there are flashes that hint at the character’s suffering, but only flashes. He leaves plenty of room for relative newcomer McKenzie’s character to take the lead. Tom is a quiet, thoughtful, and reserved girl. And McKenzie seems lit from within, as if, at times, she was a guardian angel sent to watch over her father, instead of a teenager daughter.

Not all veterans with PTSD drop out quite as far as WIll has.  But, Leave No Trace speaks, not just to the trauma and the damage of soldiers who have seen too much in war,  but wider questions of endurance and the soul that can touch all of us.  

In our society, we prize endurance, we talk about resilience and bouncing back. But is there a point where the soul cannot abide what life has presented? And, what about the rest of us? Can we still find our compassion and be loving people when we don’t get what we need?

Leave No Trace, is a quiet treasure, so subtle and yet so absorbing that it speaks to Graznik’s mastery of craft. The film is meticulously put together, and without raising its voice, is  full of emotion and compassion. 

Leave No Trace. Directed by Debra Granik. Starring Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Now playing.