Leave No Trace: realist portrait, felt trauma, and alternatives

From the start of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, there is a dooming sense that what we see won’t last. Father and daughter surviving in their makeshift camp, working hard to gather and cook food and make fires. She’s learning and he’s teaching. They keep their tools in the ground. At night, they ward off packs of animals. They stay hidden when people come through the park. It is a tiring and unsustainable life of constant surveillance and watching behind the back, a dogged survival for supplies and warmth. Leave No Trace is a realist portrait of a father and daughter surviving at society’s farthest edges, their to-the-teeth refusal to be put under the weight of accepted norms, and the alternatives that will ultimately challenge their life and relationship to each other.

Adapted from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, Leave No Trace tells the story of an Iraq War veteran Will, suffering from PTSD, and his daughter Tom living on Oregon State Park land. When they are discovered, they are split apart and taken to social services wherein they’re psychologically assessed. Eventually, they are given a new home and new way to acclimate to life on a Christmas tree farm. Will becomes paranoid: the further they get into the system he sees as dangerous, the more he will have to create facades that, by all appearances of this broken man, he will not be able to do. They leave again, wander off into the woods, and Tom begins to doubt her father’s intentions. She glimpsed the society that they had and misses it. Their path back into the wild is met with tribulations and new found kindnesses from backwoods strangers, putting into question their own relationship and the ways they see the world.

A abstract doodle by Luke Bartolomeo

…a realist portrait of…surviving at society’s farthest edges

In some ways, like its well-regarded predecessor Winter’s Bone, several themes have carried over from her previous achievement. Granik continues her exploration into the unbreakable bonds of family relations and unhealthy codependency; the deep-blood connections of people and the ways that bind them together despite all odds. Moreover, she portrays another poor white family living in a state of survival, and throughout the film the characters come in contact with people of rural or backwoods origins, akin to the characters’ own income status and necessity to survive. Notably, Granik again highlights a female protagonist surrounded by men who wane struggling with what it is to be a male and man in a world that, despite shifting structures and roles, still subjects men to standards of tradition that have left them in disarray, broken and beaten down, under duress of failing to meet expectations.

Granik never loses sight of the characters here. Will is the leftovers of an Iraq War, deep in grief of his late wife, complete in his brokenness, providing tentative safety and precarious sustenance for his daughter, a man who so disillusioned has rejected the society he has fought for, and relies on it only enough to sell drugs he gets from the VA. His daughter Tom inherits certain strength from her parents and a youthful venture for dreaming, a desire and hope that grounds her independence and makes her finally see the errors in her father’s ways. Numerous alternatives to their lives are presented, and in the end she must make choices for both her and her father that distinguishes herself from him, garnering an ability to claim her own needs and wants, and establish a new chapter in her growth, well-honed by the grim hardenings of their homeless existence.

Together, however, their symbiosis is at moments a touching vision of equality. Throughout her father’s struggles, he does teach her many admirable and strong lessons, from learning games of chess to respecting people and property as their life allows, forestry and camping skills, a skepticism of society’s capitalist designs, that you can be satisfied with very little, and a sort of resilient composure to live life at bare minimum. But ultimately, what she learns from the world beyond them allows her to become his equal bedrock and a voice of reason, a wise teacher in her own right, trying her best to delicately make him see that the world outside of his contained traumas can still hold good things and good people, that healing can be found.

A abstract doodle by Luke Bartolomeo

…their symbiosis is at moments a touching vision of equality…

Despite similar themes to Winter’s Bone, it’s Granik’s terrific sense of tender understatement amidst the portrayed hard realities that guides Leave No Trace. When they are sent to a farm on the outskirts of city life, Will must go to work chopping down Christmas trees. There’s the brutal cutting down of the trees that fall like soldiers in a battle, and the contrast of the commodification of nature that he must work to that of his isolation and solace in nature that he loves. In one small shot, he’s crouched down, moving his hand back across his head, the weight of it all too much, as the sound of a helicopter can be heard swooping over the farm like a war chopper. Will requests to work with the horses. Another small moment reveals him leaning against a horse cage, eyes closed, as if feeling the caged animal’s feelings, communicating on some deeper unknown and unsaid level, a spiritual linkage being drawn between them. For Will, little moments like these play throughout, intimate sacred dealings with his grief, and Granik implies with these small strokes the larger world of pain he endures.

Tom’s desires form and blossom as her heart opens to the experiences of community she lets in. The kid she befriends in a 4H club, who’s building his own tiny house, is a fascination for her, and one of many displays of other good modes of living that they could choose. Further in the film, they come across a group of RV residents living deep in a Washington forest. The RV dwellers play folk tunes and bluegrass, keep bees, and share a communal life together. One of the main RV leaders, an older woman that Tom respects, allows them to stay in an old RV and refuses they pay rent, even when offered. The same woman keeps a bag of food out hanging on a tree for a loner who lives in the woods, and that she hasn’t seen in years. A portrayal of strangers welcoming the stranger. Granik has a heart for outliers, othered people, and simple lives, and she gives their humanity a natural flow and progression—they’re presented as suddenly as Will and Tom find them and deeply entrenched in their ways of life without context—so that to the viewer it is a felt and accepted experience, one striking in disarming beauty.

Ben Foster portrays Will with an unsteady reserve, always on the edge of erupting but holding it back. Thomasin Mackenzie’s performance as Tom stands right alongside. Quirky and squirrelly, as if siphoned from her father’s own behavioral traits, she is the kind of teen who could be a nature nerd if she wasn’t already so steeped in surviving in it. There’s a good feedback between both actors, and a slight but comfortable distance between them, as if both are trying to understand some mystery that the other keeps hidden. Will is quiet about his time in the war and his traumas, and Foster plays up those effects with solemn tired eyes and few words. Tom holds the bright light of hope in a life of stability, and Mackenzie’s gestures of wonder at new things, her careful but bold inquisitiveness, pervade the character with a nimble awareness.

A abstract doodle by Luke Bartolomeo

Granik has a heart for outliers, othered people, and simple lives…

Handycam work and solid Northwestern landscape and sky shots fall in line with Granik’s realist approach. Her experience as a documentary filmmaker, cinematographer for Independent Lens and writer/director of the doc Stray Dog, comes to fore. It is functional filming led by rounded characters and taut straightforward narrative; a direct, no-fuss style fitting for her love of outsiders and the settings of rugged nature. Technique-wise, Granik doesn’t venture too outside standard indie cinema of the day, but her eye for economy of narrative and character development is won by not overdoing it behind the camera. She’s a practical filmmaker, and her sort of minimalism lends well to the stories she shares.

Leave No Trace captures deeply intertwined lives surviving in the sought-for solitude of nature that encases them. But the constant call for both Will and Tom to nature is always met with the potential of beauty and community they miss among other people. They are resilient to stand alone and survive, but they are so far-flung beyond the edges that met with fellow outsiders, living happily on fringes, they must confront the deeper issues of what’s happening between them: What traumas make them just keep running? What must be confronted for them to heal? And who are the good strangers, the communities of stragglers, that will bind up their wayward wounds and help lead them to some form of wholeness? Leave No Trace’s telling hard look, from the view of outliers, on our own society’s values and temperaments, may make those questions worth asking equally of ourselves as we do of them.

Director: Debra Granik
Release Year: 2018
Runtime: 109 minutes

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