Leave No Trace is really a coming-of-age story with the style and themes we’ve come to expect from Debra Granik, who will now be known as the woman who introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world in Winter’s Bone.
Comparisons to that feature are unavoidable, because Leave No Trace also focuses on a strong-willed, independent teenage girl who has to make a few hard decisions. She’s played by Thomasin McKenzie, another unknown young actress who gives a fantastic performance in what could be very well be a breakout role.
Unlike Lawrence’s Ree, her choices are admittedly less exciting. McKenzie’s Tom isn’t facing down death, she’s facing her future, and the likelihood that it won’t include the person closest to her, her father Will (Ben Foster). They are at first living their ideal, if secretive life hidden away in a public park in Oregon, even if Granik doesn’t shy away from the difficulties inherent in it. Their secluded paradise doesn’t make them unaware of the difficulties around them, which include homeless vets, many of whom are in thrall to the medications doctors hand out like candy. There’s also the nearby city of Portland, where Tom and Will are able to find everything else they need.
Dialogue and declarations are scarce, but Tom and Will are clearly close, and thank god, there’s no themes of incest in a misguided attempt to add melodrama. They’re close in a way that’s strictly unabusive, and they’re also content living a life off the grid. But the grid comes calling when a small mistake leads to them being spotted and placed in the system. They both struggle to adapt, but Tom is able to adjust to her new circumstances and even form a connection with a boy her age who shares many of her tastes. Will, on the other hand, cannot seem to even slightly embrace his new surroundings or the people, let alone adapt to them. His desperation soon drives him to flee with his daughter to recapture the freedom and solitude they enjoyed before. After a few protests, Tom reluctantly follows, and her unease continues to grow as their journey continues.
Will never offers to stay for her sake, and as Leave No Trace progresses, it becomes increasingly clear why. He can’t, not even for the daughter he clearly loves and adores. Tom shares her father’s mindset enough that she also craves a home away from other homes, but she also craves community, not the isolation Will desires. When she tells Will, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” it’s also a realization that she must finally go her own way.
Granik is the perfect filmmaker to bring this story to us, and she does it in the style she has perfected, which is a combination of power and delicacy, where a quiet statement feels as loud as a scream. She is also clearly still a master at spotting new talent. Her role in Lawrence’s career is well-known, but she did the same for Vera Farmiga, who got her own breakout playing a drug-addicted mother in Granik’s first film Down to the Bone. Likewise, Thomasin McKenzie radiates the kind of quietly watchable presence that could (and hopefully will) fuel a long career. Ben Foster also proves why he’s one of the most intense, and underrated actors working today. Will was always going to be a tragic figure, but Foster is able to fully convey the sadness and desperation of a man so scarred by his past in the military that even the most loving bond is unable to provide solace.
That the film is sometimes too quiet and even rather idealistic in how it depicts the people who populate the society they seek to escape from can be a bit daunting, but Leave No Trace is mostly a thoughtful, empathetic exploration of what really makes a home, and how hard-fought the battle can be to find it.