Nowadays, the idea of people living isolated existences, mostly cut off from the rest of the world, surviving by themselves in valleys or forests, seems rather alien to most of us. Despite the fact that alongside their long evolutionary process, humans spent most of their lives in the midst of nature, a paradigm shift in how society came to be thought of changed all that. Individuals are now predominantly urban creatures, who find comfort in numbers, and fear being alone in remote places. However, exceptions only further reinforce the rule, and director Debra Granik has a history of exploring such isolated communities, living at the edge of what we now conceptualise as ‘modern civilisation’. Perhaps her most famous work to date is Winter’s Bone, which among the many awards and nominations it received, is credited with bringing a then teenage Jennifer Lawrence into the spotlight.
Leave No Trace starts off by presenting us its two main characters in their natural environment. Will (Ben Foster), a former soldier suffering from PTSD, leads a quiet and isolated existence alongside his 13 year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), in the forests near Portland, Oregon. They forage for mushrooms which they then cook at the campfire, they collect dew and rainwater for drinking, and only occasionally venture into the city to buy supplies, which they can afford through money earned by selling Will’s medication. The only ‘cure’ he needs is leading a quiet life away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, and finds happiness in teaching his daughter everything he knows. Tom loves their way of life, and wants nothing more than to continue the status quo. However, a random encounter leads to their discovery by the authorities, and – as they are illegally living on park territory – they are taken in and subjected to various tests. It is during these examinations that the authorities find out that the father-daughter relationship is a healthy one, with no causes for concern, and that the father had astutely assumed the role of a teacher – as a consequence, Tom is smarter and more educated than most of her age group peers. While separation doesn’t have to occur, the two cannot return to their own ways, and Tom has to be sent to school – so they are moved to a temporary accommodation in the countryside, and Will is given a job on a Christmas tree farm. The two accept their new situation for the time being, but miss their old life in the woods.
A few defining characteristics make Debra Granik’s film a memorable experience, oozing a degree of humaneness and sincerity that we seldom get to witness. First of all, while the plot structure is extremely simplistically drawn, the characters veer in quite the opposite direction – both Tom and her dad exhibit complex and layered personalities, that are so similar and yet so different. The story doesn’t push these ideas, though, by spelling out every little detail in typical Hollywood fashion, just in case some might go amiss. It doesn’t insist on waving the PTSD story angle in the audience’s face, in a sort of political statement, nor does it present the past events, such as how Tom came to lose her mother, through flashbacks or heavy explanatory dialogue. No – in Leave No Trace, everything is weaved naturally into the frame, and most of the information flows visually rather than through conversations. For instance, Tom’s movements are firm and assured when engaging in manual labour in the forest – she splinters wood and starts a fire with natural ease. However, when in the city, she cautiously strokes the doors of a train, with a sort of unnatural inquisitiveness – while not exactly on edge, she is clearly not in her element. Her interactions with Will likewise necessitate very few words, and we can understand how they feel in different occasions through glances, body language and speed of reaction. It’s very refreshing to see a filmmaker who is happy to let us assess situations by picking on small cues, rather than bombarding us with pre-processed information.
It is equally refreshing to witness a plot that does not rely on any sort of physical conflict – there are no antagonists, and nobody has the express wish to harm anyone else at any point during the story. The father is not some sort of hardened, hypocritical patriarchal figure who imposes his will on his young and naive daughter, but rather a troubled human being with a difficult past, who tries to make the most out of his circumstances and give his child the best he can offer. The only source of conflict surfaces in the second part of the film, and stems from an inner misalignment of the thoughts and wishes of the two main characters. As Tom gets out of her comfort zone and experiences a myriad of different places, social interactions and emotions, she sees her place in the world with different eyes. For her, there is no specific point in the film that turns her worldview upside down, but it is a continuous process of input and output, of stimuli and inner responses that gradually shifts her view on things. But, once again, we do not get assaulted with a dramatic monologue on how she sees the light, and wants something different from life. Just like everything else in the film. the realisation comes slowly, naturally and very believably. It’s a joy to watch.
As we can see by the numerous questions that Will and Tom have to respond to when their way of life is brought under question by various characters they meet, trust is a very scarce resource in today’s world. People are quick to assume the worst before assuming the best, and this is a rational adaptation mechanism that stems from real-life experience. And, while nobody gets the chance to doubt the best intentions of either of them, a particular scene in the film illustrates this overarching theme very vividly. Somewhere past the hour mark, one of the characters teaches Tom about bees and beekeeping. She shows her that as long as you are completely open about your intentions and approach the interaction in a sincere and gentle way, you have nothing to fear. Not only because it is not in a bee’s nature to sting, but because they will die if they hurt you. And, by applying this exact image to the closing scene of the film, we are left with a very special moment, a mixture of understanding, awe, sadness and compassion.