Leave No Trace (2018)

Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is a sympathetic, realistic character study of a father and daughter trying to adapt to society after being off grid in a US wilderness.

Outside Looking In

by Alexa Dalby

Leave No Trace

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Currently there seems to be a painful thread of post-Afghanistan/post-Iraq-involvement trauma woven through US society that’s surfacing now in recent movie releases. First Reform is another one to be released soon.

In Leave No Trace, Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) is Will, an ex-serviceman – US ‘veteran’ – now a survivalist living with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) deep in an idyllic national park in Portland, Oregon. Their lifestyle in the wild is rigorously organised along army survival lines, their hidden camp a secret home of improvised, sustainable mod cons. The skills Will learned in the army enable him to keep covering their tracks, to ‘leave no trace’ of their existence and elude detection. But one day curious Tom – maybe not by accident – is sighted by the park rangers. As a result the trespassing father and daughter are hunted down and their pastoral idyll is ended by the authorities.

Will and Tom are processed by the system and constrained to settle into ‘normal’ life with responsibilities – a home that has neighbours, and a job. Though it’s never explicit, Will seems to be suffering from some kind of post-conflict PTSD that has made him reject modern society, chafe at any authority figure and find unbearable to stay in one place for long. He has to keep moving even if where he goes is even more hard and uncomfortable than where he’s just left, not just for him but for Tom too, so long as it’s away from other people. Though he’s fiercely protective of his daughter, he’s not yet seeing that she is becoming a person in her own right. But Tom is growing up and she’s open to new experiences, to settling and putting down roots somewhere as she makes friends along the way. The scene with the bees in the hive that Tom learns to cultivate in one of the self-contained, outsider communities they pass through, subtly conveys the message that people need other people. Like the bees, we are social beings. It’s a changing father/daughter dynamic that will take tough love to resolve.

Leave No Trace is luscious to look at, its colour palette dominated by lush greens that counterpoint the flatness of officialdom and the city. McKenzie is excellent as she quietly blossoms in growing maturity and the balance of her relationship with her father subtly shifts. It’s based on a true story – and Peter Rock’s My Abandonment – and director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) has created a film rooted in realistic details of wilderness life that’s a sympathetic but unsentimental comment on conventional and alternative societies.

Leave No Trace premiered at the Sundance Festival, in Europe in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 71st Cannes Film Festival, in the UK at Sundance London and is released on 29 June 2018 in the UK.

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