LEAVE NO TRACE, a film co-written and directed by Debra Granik opens with an aerial shot of dense green foliage, a beautifully constructed spider web catching the sun’s silken rays of light, and hanging wet moss dripping water as the camera caresses nature’s exquisiteness in the Pacific Northwest landscape - a few miles outside of an alternate world - Portland Oregon. And then we glimpse a man and young girl almost camouflaged among the lush fronds - invisible as they wish to be.
A father named Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are “survivalists” who have tamed a small area of this wild beauty into a home. Their relationship with “nature” is respectful; they are both comfortable with living outdoors - cooking, tending to a fire, and getting clear water from the canopy of foliage that envelops them. The relationship with one another is both tender and loving but not equal. Tom, is clearly a teenage girl who is deferential and appreciative of the father who raised her but longing to know more about her mother who died when she was very young. We soon glean that Will is a veteran with PTSD symptoms whose dreams often jolt him awake shaken, gasping shallow breaths against the vast ceiling of stars in the deep black umbrella of space.
The beginning of LEAVE NO TRACE depicts how Will and Tom live day-to-day gathering food, playing chess, caring for a garden - all done with a delicate affection that one cannot help but envy, both tending to what is needed to live a life “off the grid” - untouched by contemporary life’s amenities. Suddenly everything changes when Tom is spotted by a Ranger and police with dogs arrive, violating their intimate island in the midst of the vast protective forest.
The outside world has finally permeated their lives, including the assignment of a social worker who gets them situated in pre-fab housing complete with a television, a stove, electricity, and warm shelter. The film is replete with people touching Will and Tom’s lives who are very kind, concerned individuals, but are unable to comprehend living a “homeless” existence under the light of the moon; an existence which demands nothing from civic institutions, where self-reliance and the ability to live isolated from others is a form of freedom - no matter the cost.
Thomasin McKenzie portraying the daughter is a lovely young actor with her pale face and sharply curious dark eyes who adores and understands her father’s psychological frailties, however once she comes into contact with the world around her she, unlike her father, embraces all living creatures with an innocence and compassion that is exquisite to observe.
Ben Foster gives a moving performance as Will whose wounded, shaken psyche, torn apart by the brutality of war, softens immeasurably whenever he is with his daughter, who he has raised to be self-reliant, strong and gentle - a captivating mixture. As for the rest of society, Will’s close-set suspicious eyes reveal the inner turmoil of an untamed colt, jittery and ready to bolt at any unwanted intrusion.
All the characters that Will and Tom meet on their journeys, exhibit a sensitivity that belies outward appearances. Director Debra Granik is almost idyllic in her view of community and humanity’s goodness all nestled under the light and ambiance of the majestic Pacific Northwest. LEAVE NO TRACE is an honest, unpredictable, quiet film - a coming of age story that touched me to the point of stifling audible sobs while viewing the vulnerable delicacy of human fragility.