Lost and Found
by Tayler Montague
Leave No Trace
Dir. Debra Granik, U.S., Bleecker Street Media
When Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace begins, we’re enshrouded in greenery. It’s equally possible we’re on the brink of a society postapocalypse or in the midst of the tail end of a camping trip. Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (newcomer Thomasin McKenzie) are a father and daughter who have chosen the woods as their home. Their reason for living off the grid isn’t initially clear. As the film unfolds we learn more about their world, and why they’re living in seclusion. We see them engage in a series of daily activities and drills, one of which is kind of a survivalist’s hide-and-seek. When police, rangers, or even campers come around, they camouflage themselves in the weeds. It’s a tactic that Will has most likely learned in the army, as his approach to living this way feels like a soldier who’s decided to stay behind long after the war is over. At one point, the camera lingers on Will trying—and failing—to make a fire; after we share in his frustration when it won’t catch, Tom reminds him that they can use propane. When Will tells her not to use too much as they’re getting low, the viewer realizes there may be finite amount of resources. Maybe they are at the end of the earth in its last days.
By keeping you up close and personal with both characters, Leave No Trace is empathetic to its core. There’s nothing show-offy or grandstanding in the camera work, because it’s not necessary; even in the most thrilling moments, the film is operates off of the adrenaline of Tom and Will. Granik keeps them central at all times, never distracting us with the shifts in scenery and community. She takes a documentary-style approach in showing us both the mundanity and intricacies of what it takes to survive in the woods. The film’s brilliance resides in the moments in which we’re not hearing people speak, but watching people just be: close-ups of hands working or highlighting the rhythm created by something as simple as Tom’s fork hitting and scraping her bowl as she eats. There’s a natural divide between the viewers and the characters, but also an invitation to become enveloped in their world: the shrubs and trees, the tent, the gadgets they’ve created to cook food. With Tom and Will as anchors, we become willing to follow them here and there; their journey becomes our journey. And like the two of them, we aren’t able to stay in one place for too long.
As the film wears on, the little girl is clearly growing up, forming her own opinions on the world, no longer just going along with what her father wants. We notice the first indication of an outside world when they go searching for food. Tom’s diet of wild mushrooms and rainwater doesn’t seem to be keeping her sated, as she is constantly reminding her father that she’s hungry. A sojourn to the supermarket gives us a clearer understanding of Tom and Will, and his motivations for his lifestyle. He first makes a stop at a center for veterans, picking up a prescription for medication for his PTSD that he’ll sell later to another veteran who lives in the woods. This exchange indicates how they’re able to eat, while also implying a sense of community. In this moment Granik is illustrating not just the stark reality of how serving your country provides no guarantees once you return home, but how often such people aren’t being accounted for. At any given moment, they could be on the brink of starvation. Yet, the film also asks, who are we to decide what’s good for them? Why can’t they just make the woods their home? While the viewer is made to empathize with Will, clearly suffering from PTSD and not taking his medicine, one is encouraged to truly feel for Tom, who never had a chance at a normal life. (A conversation one night in their tent reveals that her mother likely passed away long ago.)
The effort to become “normal” becomes the central point of conflict for Tom and Will, despite their bond. While reading about seahorses from an old encyclopedia (the creatures are bonded together for life, like this father and daughter), Tom is spotted by someone, and the police raid what property they have. Tom dips into the brush undetected, with Will following, but they are sniffed out by dogs. Soon, social worker Jean (Dana Millican) arrives on the scene, surveying their home and reminding both that living on public land is illegal. For the first time, father and daughter are separated, swept up into a system they’ve been trying so hard to avoid. While in Jean’s care, Tom interacts with people her age for the first time, looking on while two other girls create dream boards, reminders of their wishes and future life goals. They let Tom know that the chance that she’ll see her father again is slim. The fact that she does see him again serves to showcase her relative social privilege. The expression of this privilege feels intentional on Granik’s part, playing into our frustration with Will’s continued inability to get acclimated to life outside of the woods. In America,children regularly get separated from their parents and shuffled into the system, never to return to their parents.
And yet Tom and Will get another lease on life. Will tells her to pack a bag so they can take off again. Tom confronts her father, telling him that she doesn’t want to leave her newly stable life, her new room and friends. It’s a testament to Thomasin McKenzie’s authentic performance that Tom’s anger and disappointment are always clearly brimming beneath the surface (her chin quivers and her face turns red) while she maintains a calm tone—which feels like a tactic picked up from being raised by someone with PTSD.
By the time of their next excursion to the woods, which nearly kills both of them, our sympathy for Will has worn thin. He has taken them away from food, shelter, work, and, most importantly, a support system. He has constantly been on the receiving end of other people’s graciousness and has always rejected it for his own interests, enacting some version of Man vs. Wild, using his machete to clear a path to ultimately nowhere. Too in his own head to see past himself, he is affected by not just PTSD but also a self-serving, deluded masculinity that’s killing his relationship with the only person he has in this world. The film’s central, intentional frustration stems from our desire to see them stay together, even as he’s denying his daughter the life and community she so desperately needs and craves. This is expressed by Tom asking, “Did you even try?” After all, they’re bonded together for life, like those seahorses, even when each wants something entirely different. And we know that they both have the ability to sustain that bond despite ultimately moving in opposite directions. In the end, Debra Granik has crafted a story that’s rooted in the fragility of human relationships and speaks to the difficulty of letting go of the one you love for the sake of saving yourself.