Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace opens in the dense, rain-specked green of Portland, Oregon’s Forest Park, where a man and a teenager girl forage for food to take back to their camp. This goes on for a while. Absent contextualizing subtitles or expository dialogue, you’re left to make sense of these people by keenly observing their actions and how they relate to each other. Your antennae are up. Your phone is in your pocket. You’re paying attention. You’re an active viewer.
Anyone could open a movie with the same spare detail, but there are very few filmmakers active today who could approximate the hardscrabble authenticity Granik brings to this material. Working from a novel by Peter Rock, Granik and her Winter’s Bone writing partner Anne Rosselini have once again burrowed into the lives of the truly forgotten people of the United States, only this time they’re without a marketable whodunit hook. The result is something closer to a Dardennes film or Italian neorealism, which probably doesn’t bode well for the film’s commercial prospects, but, and this might be the Park City altitude talking, I have hope that there’s an audience outside the arthouse ghetto that might be profoundly moved by the plight of a mentally scarred veteran who can’t abide civilization and the daughter who loves him unconditionally because he’s all she’s got.
We eventually learn that the father is named Will (Ben Foster) and the daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), and, because we’re paying attention, we surmise that he’s struggling with some form of combat-related PTSD long before it’s explicitly stated. Will may not be an ideal parent for Tom as she enters adolescence, but he’s doing a bang-up job educating her through books and intellectually stimulating hobbies like chess. She’s smart, resourceful and empathetic, but Will’s attentive parenting can’t compensate for her lack of socialization.
This changes when Tom and Will are apprehended by the police for living on public land. They’re briefly separated, which allows Tom to spend a little time with two troubled girls who probably come from situations way worse than hers. We’re told that she’s socially underdeveloped, but what we’re shown suggests that she’s shy at worst. Later, after they’re placed in a temporary residence, Tom encounters a young man who invites her to come to his 4-H meeting. She accepts, and learns a valuable lesson in the handling of rabbits. We can sense that Tom is beginning to open up; her natural curiosity has been piqued by someone who isn’t her father. Will senses this, too, so it’s not a coincidence that he nips this normalizing situation in the bud and takes her back off the grid.
This time they head north into the wilderness of Washington, which is far less hospitable than Forest Park. If Will has a plan, he’s not sharing it, and if he does have one, it sucks because Tom nearly succumbs to the cold and rainy elements. Eventually, they stumble upon an uninhabited cabin, which provides heat and sustenance. This doesn’t work for Will either. Perhaps feeling guilty for his carelessness, Will wanders off into the forest the following morning and is severely injured. Fortunately, Tom discovers him, and is able to flag down a couple of off-roaders who haul him back to a makeshift village comprised of people who, much like Will, would prefer to remain forgotten.
Leave No Trace is not an overtly political film, but the aforementioned details have not been randomly plucked out of the ether. We don’t know much about Will’s background, but, metaphorically, it’s significant that this American who served his country has backed himself into the northwesternmost corner of the contiguous United States. He’s trying like hell to disappear without surrendering his identity. His only remaining duty is to Tom, and, ultimately, it’s up to her to cut him loose. Granik resolves this tragic dilemma in characteristically understated fashion. The emotions don’t bubble over. The music doesn’t swell. But if you pay close attention, you’ll feel your heart break.