It has taken me far longer to see Debra Granik’s (Winter’s Bone) Leave No Trace than I had either hoped or intended. The buzzy independent film has been a festival darling and garnered rave reviews all around the industry (it currently sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) but out-of-town trips, local weekend events, and a death in the family has made it difficult for me to make the journey (my local theater would never get a film such as this one) to catch it until now, when its run is seemingly beginning to wind down. Still, better late than never, right?
The film is an adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment and tells the story of war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). Will’s war experiences have left him mentally and emotionally scarred, creating within him the desire and borderline need to live off the grid and away from society. He and Tom have created a home for themselves in a Portland, Oregon, park but when they are discovered by the authorities and uprooted, the two must discern how to return to a life that is acceptable and tolerable to the people they have both become and desire to be.
I found myself both enthralled and enraged by Leave No Trace. I was enthralled by the simple but effective storytelling. There is no narrative hook employed by Granik to command the audience’s attention. There’s no natural or obvious conclusion that the movie is clearly building towards. There are no dangling plot threads introduced in the first act to present the viewer with something that needs to be resolved. No, much like Will and Tom, the film exists in the moment, with no sense of direction or of what’s to come. This is by design and can often be the kiss of death for a lesser filmmaker but, with the help of her two leads, Granik succeeds in crafting a high-quality, sophisticated, adult film about responsibility and priorities.
And that’s where I become enraged – not at the film, but at Foster’s Will. It’s no secret that the world around us is changing at a rate far faster than many of us would like or are comfortable with. And not all of these changes are necessarily for the best. Speaking for myself, I despise cell phones. I hate them. I wish they had never been invented. They are creating a divide between people and the world around them. They are hurting relationships. They are making people less intelligent. But I still have one. They have their benefits, when used appropriately and responsibly. Heck, I’m using one, right now, to type this review while I eat at a restaurant.
My point is that I’m resistant to this change in the world but am also aware of the need to adapt for not only my own good but the good of those around me, as well. I once knew a couple who were about to see the birth of their first child. They were a nice enough pair, but they also viewed themselves as rather worldly and somewhat above the conventions of modern culture. That apparently included modern medicine, as they insisted upon forgoing the use of a hospital in order to opt for a natural childbirth at home using a midwife. The baby was born with the umbilical cord around its neck. It survived but suffered brain damage to an extent unknown to me, as I wasn’t particularly close to them.
But they valued their petty and elitist image – their determination to not be considered among the perceived conformists – over the safety of their child. I’m sure those close to them told them not to beat themselves up over it and that it wasn’t their fault. But a trained hospital staff could have dealt with the situation quickly or likely even prevented it entirely. The couple knew the possibilities and decided that they were immune to them. So, whose fault was it, then, if not theirs?
I saw these same qualities in Will. When the only life at stake is one’s own, then do as you please. Live how you want. But once a child is involved, the sole responsibility of any parent or guardian is transferred entirely to them. Will places his own wants and desires above that of his daughter, no matter the cost. It costs her physically, it costs her mentally, and it costs her socially, but none of that matters more to Will than his stubborn dedication to the Luddite way of life. I’m not saying Will doesn’t love Tom (nor am I suggesting that the parents referenced above didn’t/don’t love their child). I’m just saying he loves her less than his meaningless convictions, no matter the reasons for them. Simply put, he is an unfit father.
But that only adds to the realism and the impact of the film. I’m exhausted by the casual moviegoers who whine whenever a character makes a stupid decision or a bad choice. That’s life. That’s what real people do. And films should be representative of that, like this one is. To help things along, both Foster and McKenzie give raw, understated performances that drip with authenticity. The film probably would have benefited from the occasional shot of adrenaline, as it might get a bit sleepy for some, but if the viewer engages with the actors and makes the effort to lean into their portrayals, sticking with it will be an effortless endeavor.
I don’t know if my takeaway from this story is the one intended by Rock and Granik but, even if it isn’t, I stand by its legitimacy. Leave No Trace is a powerful and harrowing tale about the dangers of selfish parenting. Love isn’t enough to do it right; sacrifice is perhaps the most crucial element of all. But it’s also a tale about the resiliency of the human spirit. This is a sad story, in ways (I’m not saying what ways), but not necessarily a tragic one. Life is ultimately what you make it, and that’s the lesson that I hope these characters and their audiences take away from this film.
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