As they say, truth is often wilder than fiction. Adapted from the novel "My Abandonment" by Peter Rock and based on a true story from 2004, "Leave No Trace" follows Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), a father-daughter duo living in a lush wooded park in Portland, OR. They’ve constructed their lives around a tarp-covered plot in the dense foliage and learned to survive off the land, growing food they cook over propane stoves, trapping their water from dew and rainfall, and scavenging for food. They go into town for other necessities and for Will to collect his disability check. He is ex-military, tormented by night terrors. It is the untamed wild that comforts him and allows him mental reprieve from life’s tragedies.
When, by chance, a runner spots Tom playing on a hill and reports the sighting to the police, their slice of wonderland is raided, and their happy existence turns into the small hell of a local shelter. Based on the girl’s self-reported happiness and advanced level of education, they’re transferred out to live and work on a lumber farm.
There, Tom finds she can be happy in a “normal” living situation, away from the isolating forest and allowed to socialize with people her own age. Will, however, is still haunted by modern living and yearns for solitude. When the bad thoughts seep back in, he whisks them off again, evading the authorities as they impart on the hardest part of their journey yet: towards the discovery that they may be migrating apart.
Writer/Director Debra Granik has an eye and voice for telling stories dug from the earth of the “forgotten” society. Her last major hit as writer/director was 2010’s indie-darling "Winter’s Bone", the star vehicle that garnered Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar nod and overnight fame. She strikes gold again with the film that is as much heart-warming as it is heart-wrenching.
All of the performances, big and small, are quiet but potent in a way you don’t see often enough. Discernible emotions are muted, conveyed with a single quiver of the bottom lip or smoldering side-glance. Perhaps the actors are just that talented. Foster we know and love for the unique and often untamed characters he embodies, each one more singular and unbridled than the next; McKenzie, a relative newcomer and New Zealand native, has an equally diminutively but forceful presence alongside her veteran costar.
Maybe it’s the setting both the proverbial and literal backwoods society of the PNW that is conducive to extracting such knockout performances. We’re taken on a voyage through the eyes of Tom, a soft-spoken but wily 13-year-old who comes of age before our eyes. The beauty and innocence of their lifestyle set against the richness of the landscape, coupled with the naiveté of her father’s plan that leads to some brutal scenes in the Washington woods, make for a visually provocative, emotionally endless ride to the depths of what we do for the ones we love.
It’s difficult to watch this film and not contemplate its timeliness. Our two leads are ripped from their shanty-tented existence. Their fellow community members plead with demolition crews to spare their sparsely constructed shacks. These may not be houses, but they’re homes to someone. As it is, Seattle is embroiled in an ongoing debate about how to handle such communities, the long stretches of camps assembled in underpasses and circumvented corners of parks. Though the film does not preach any real side - apart from the personal, human story of this particular family - it does make very clear that often living on the land is a choice as much as it is a life sentence.
"Leave No Trace" is wonder to behold, a hard watch made even harder by the fact that it really happened. It is a truly American story of love, survival and acceptance in our country’s often forgotten frontier.