For Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), life is simple most of the time, and by design at that. They live in a public forest outside Portland, where Will teaches his daughter the things a person actually needs to live a good life. He teaches her to make and mend her own things. She’s literate, well-educated in the essentials, and sharp when it comes to the foraging so necessary to their self-sustaining lifestyle. The worst of their woes usually come from Will, an Iraq War veteran who returned home with severe PTSD, but Tom has learned how to take care of her father’s episodes, at least well enough. It’s just them, in a world of their own creation, with none of the things that Will fears and abhors most anywhere near him.
That is, until they show up at the camp and send Will and Tom on a journey into the wide-open, terrifying outside world. Leave No Trace possesses rare insight into the pathology of men like Will, but the film rarely sidesteps the simple, painful issue at the core of the film’s premise: Will loves Tom more than anything else, but that fact out of hand doesn’t necessarily make him a fit parent. For director Debra Granik (who also co-wrote her first film in eight years with Anne Rosellini), that problem is one that exists in the periphery of every scene at all times, and one she uses to mount a wrenching sense of tension throughout. There are no real thrills inherent in watching Will and Tom attempt to acclimate to a federally-mandated lifestyle that she doesn’t understand and he actively resents; there is simply the necessity of them attempting to leave a life that made far more sense than the new one ever will.
Crucially, Leave No Trace never mistakes their lifestyle for idyllic, even as Granik and her leads find ways to convey just how beautiful their experience is when read outside of its context. Tom might be well beyond smart for her age, but as a case worker points out early on, she’s years behind in socialization and life development and nothing Will can add to their lifestyle will fill that gap. Will struggles to so much as take a true-false vocation test without sliding into fits of triggered panic. The duo can’t continue on as they have, and yet to both, the idea of letting go and embracing the larger society that Will fears and resents is impossible to embrace. Even as Granik continues to complicate the stakes, largely relying on Tom’s developing sense of personal autonomy, the film rarely wavers in its commitment to keeping the stakes bracingly close to the two vividly realized human beings involved.
If this does leave the focus of the film seeming narrow at times, particularly in its refusal to acknowledge exactly what happened to Will that left him so paranoid of society at large, it also makes sure that Leave No Trace is always focused where it needs to be. There’ll undoubtedly be a great deal of discussion about McKenzie’s work here, which much like Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout turn in Winter’s Bone puts a great deal of trust in a largely untested performer to carry the dramatic weight of the entire feature. McKenzie does so phenomenally, never allowing Tom to slide into the traps of precociousness or wise-beyond-her-years posturing that a story of this nature could land upon. When she takes her halting first steps toward making friends her own age or reckoning with the nature of her family dynamic, there’s a wisdom authentic to her survival-based upbringing that McKenzie always plays against the simple fact that she’s still a kid, and still living in a sub-ideal situation.
Foster, meanwhile, is the roaring temper of the film even when so much of it calls for him to deliver Will’s trembling anxiety with understatement. If the film never offers a solid foundation for where Will is coming from, Foster’s performance contain the kind of multitudes that almost completely work to bridge that gap. There’s a torture to his work here that never feels belabored or false, never melodramatic when it can instead chase a rawer authenticity. When offered a house for the two of them with a yard and a great deal more free rein than most other opportunities would yield, there’s a reluctance behind Foster’s eyes, an unwillingness to concede that the government responsible for his suffering could also potentially help. He’s less feral or severe than simply wounded, a man whose entire life before the film picks up is as elusive to him as it is to the viewer.
Leave No Trace works on an intimate canvas, and Granik’s sensitive, observant filmmaking keeps a hum of momentum running through a story often more concerned with small incidents than grand gestures of drama. Yet the emotion eventually comes to pack a wallop, and it’s because of McKenzie and Foster’s character-focused work that it does. It’s rare that a film can evoke such a strong sense of a relationship, forged through endless trials long before we come to meet the people involved, but Leave No Trace is one such rare film. Will and Tom are everywhere around America, living similar lives and depending on similar kindnesses to remain afloat. To stop and see them, really see them in the way that Granik accomplishes here, is even rarer still.