Complex family relationships seem to fascinate filmmaker Debra Granik. In her absorbing 2010 thriller, Winter’s Bone, a young woman in the Ozarks backwoods desperately searches for her wayward, absent father before the family property can be seized. The mood is outwardly more calm and reflective in Granik’s new film Leave No Trace. Yet the tension builds steadily between a reclusive father determined to live off the grid, in the wilderness, and the loyal teenage daughter he means to shield from the complications of civilized life.
Adapted by Granik and co-scriptwriter Anne Rosellini from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, the story begins in a lush green forest preserve on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Tom (a poised and poignant Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), now 13, has grown up in the woods with her father Will (Ben Foster). A wary war vet mistrustful of the noise and skewed values of modern society, Will has taught his daughter all the woodcraft skills she needs to survive, as they live off the land, under the radar.
Their base camp—tent, cookware, tools and supplies—is well concealed under the foliage. They canvass the woods with their backpacks, foraging for food, and make occasional expeditions over the bridge into town to stock up on necessities like eggs. But in general, they keep a low profile and practice drills in the forest to see how fast they can run and hide themselves should their camp ever be discovered.
One day, a passing jogger reports them, and their camp is invaded by police with dogs. They are taken into protective custody and turned over to Social Services, where a dismayed Will undergoes psychological testing (profound existential questions that must be answered “true” or “False”). Tom is taken under the wing of sympathetic counselor Jean (Dana Millican), who is surprised that Tom’s reading and comprehension skills surpass those of most schoolgirls her age. Still, as Jean explains, “it’s not a crime to be unhoused, but it’s illegal to live on public lands.”
Thus begins Will and Tom’s attempt to play be society’s rules. Reunited, they’re given shelter in an empty worker’s house at a Christmas tree farm, in exchange for Will’s labor. Tom finds she rather likes running water, electric lights, and the fellowship of other kids at the nearby 4H Club. But while Tom never says a word about it, we see how soul-numbing it is for this expert nature lover to take part in cutting down trees, lopping off branches, and wrapping them in plastic for the marketplace. Pretty soon, father and daughter are on the run again.
It’s not exactly a rift, but what begins to complicate Tom’s relationship with her father is his fierce need to live independently from society verus her budding desire for community. Until now, she’s been perfectly happy being her dad’s companion in their wilderness adventure, reveling in dewy spider webs and wild mushrooms and the glories of the unspoiled natural world. But once she’s gotten a taste for the companionship of other humans, she might not be as willing as her dad to turn her back on them.
There are no villains in this story, nobody with an evil agenda; indeed, the opportunities for shelter, friendship, and purpose keep presenting themselves to a degree that feels a bit too easy—opportunities that many “unhoused” people rarely get in real life.
But this is a family drama, not a Social Studies discourse, and in that respect, it succeeds with quiet grace. McKenzie carries the brunt of the drama as her curious Tom slowly awakens to the possibilities of an alternate life. And Foster (who’s come a long way since he played Angel in the early X-Men movies) turns in a performance of aching, simmering reserve as taciturn Will.
LEAVE NO TRACE
*** (out of four)
With Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster. Written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik, from the Peter Rock novel My Abandonment. Directed by Debra Granik. A Bleecker Street release. Rated PG. 109 minutes.