Directed by Debra Granik
In Leave No Trace a military veteran and his teenaged daughter live a quiet life in the forest. Soon local law enforcement will track them down and introduce them back to civilization. The daughter, having never been forced to choose between the wild and the civilized world, slowly adapts to the new environment while the father resists.
There is a bit of Room (2013) to this movie and a little of Captain Fantastic as well. The father, Will (Ben Foster), has raised his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) well, though he is blind to certain needs every child eventually has. In their idyllic, isolated life they are self-sustaining and happy. Will has taught Tom well, and others will observe that she is years ahead of her peers in school.
Still, Tom wouldn’t know what was missing from her life like those with Child Protective Services do. As she is exposed to other kids her age and even just the simple pleasures of a roof over your head, she will gravitate towards a more conventional lifestyle, not quite sure what’s so bad about it.
Will, on the other hand, can’t bear to live under a roof and certainly not on someone else’s schedule. The movie doesn’t try to explain his background until much later, but certain clues (like a particular tattoos and general wilderness expertise) hint at his military history. He suffers from PTSD which was once treated but which now is left unresolved. All he has to show for his treatment is a drug prescription which he sells in order to sustain his and Tom’s existence in the wild.
The conflict here could be made sappy and unbelievable, but it’s always grounded in something more human. In the two characters’ push and pull over where and how to live they will be forced to make tough decisions, but they are decisions to be made by them alone. You won’t have that moment where, once they head back out into the wild, CPS or the police intervene and force them into a new way of life. Instead the characters face one significant hurdle early on which presents them with two paths to take. Tom is keen on taking the new one, and Will returns to the old.
They will return to the wild to less fruitful results and then bounce around various brief shelters before attempting to resolve the growing rift between them. There is a delicate balance between the sentimentality between the father and daughter and the unsentimentality of their plight. There is no one riding over the hill to save them, no cure falling from the Heavens to quiet what ails the PTSD riddled veteran. They are stuck with themselves and each other, just as they are.
Their long journey is similar to another of 2018’s best movies (so far), Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete. Both movies set up a premise which the rest of the story effectively subverts, providing surprises and catharsis along the way. They are gentle and devastating, and they do a pretty compelling job of focusing on the ways people fall through the cracks, even in a highly developed (sometimes painfully so) first world nation.
Up Next: Damsel (2018), The Finest Hours (2016), Kid-Thing (2012)