Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace

Image from the film Leave No Trace
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Debra Granik (writer and director of Winter’s Bone) has created a striking film about connection, isolation, community and the responsibility people have for each other in Leave No Trace. This was one of the most popular films at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and while I missed it then, I was glad to be able to see it on the big screen this week.

Will (the excellent Ben Foster) lives in the forest in Oregon with his daughter Tom (played beautifully by New Zealand actor Thomasin McKenzie). They live a simple and happy existence, sleeping in a tent and foraging. They have been living this way for some time, hiding from the world and venturing into the city of Portland when they need basics that the forest doesn’t provide. That is, until one day, reading a book and not paying attention, Tom is spotted in the forest, bringing the pair to the attention of authorities.

Going a bit deeper….

Only read further if you’re OK with spoilers.

Will and Tom’s world in the forest seems basic, but idyllic. The rich soundscape of the forest is peaceful and welcoming, a soundscape that is contrasted to that of the city, full of intrusive industrial noises. The lush greens and rich browns contrasted with the greys and neutral colours of the man-made environment. The cocoon-like close shots within the forest, against the wide-open institutional urban spaces. Although these contrasts are clear, what I like about this film is that it doesn’t present a simple forest-good, city-bad proposition, although it seems like it might at first. But it turns out this story is not about passing judgement, it’s about connection, community, and all the different things these can mean to different people.

The world, as Will and Tom knows it, falls apart when they are discovered in the forest. While they are wrenched, somewhat violently, from their forest home, the authorities ultimately treat them well and try to accommodate them. A community welcomes them, and Will goes through the motions, but ultimately he is unable to make a home there. Tom discovers a pleasure and comfort in finding a community and making connections beyond her father, and is upset when her father forces her to leave with him. Later, in the more hostile environment of the Washington State forest, with winter closing in, Will has an accident and is again forced to adapt to a different community. As Will recovers, Tom finds a happy home amongst these people who welcome them. By the time Will is well enough to return to the forest, it is clear that what Will needs, which is isolation, is not what Tom needs.

We don’t know exactly what happened to Will, but we know he has experienced trauma. Will used to be connected, a former military man, part of a team, but his experiences have changed him. While Tom finds much needed connection within the communities they find themselves in, Will sees only confinement. It is only in the open and the isolation of the forest where he can really feel safe, and Tom is the only person he is able to connect to. In fact, the only overt comment this film makes is to notice the inadequacy of the authorities and the various services and protections when it comes to helping returned servicemen dealing with the trauma of combat. This is not a main theme, but there are a couple of pointed moments where this is highlighted.

Leave No Trace is a beautifully told story. A personal story, which doesn’t pass judgement. Although Will cannot fit in the regular world, amongst other people, we aren’t asked to judge him for this. He has done the best he can, raised his daughter, and done it well, outside of the normal bounds of regular society. We can’t judge the authorities either, who do their best to understand and accommodate Will and Tom, but Will is unable to conform enough to make it work.

In the end it is clear that Tom, who is becoming an adult, needs more that Will can offer her. He has raised her to be able to fend for herself, and make decisions for herself, and so he can let her go, although he doesn’t want to. We don’t know what will happen to Will and Tom as they go their separate ways, but we are left with the sense that they will both be OK.

Leave No Trace is currently in limited release, so catch it while you can.