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Leave No Trace is a beautiful, heart-rending film about a father and daughter living on the margins

Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik compassionately explores the ties between strangers that keep the world together.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace.
Scott Green/Bleecker Street
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every year a handful of small, independent American films show up that leave you breathless. Leave No Trace is one of them.

Director Debra Granik favors stories of people living just along the seams of society. That includes her acclaimed 2010 feature Winter’s Bone (which introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence) and the 2014 documentary Stray Dog, about a Vietnam vet living with PTSD.

That’s hard to accomplish when you’re making films for an audience who mostly live much closer to the centers of power. Films like these usually find their following among a more privileged art-house crowd, and it’s easy to turn the stories of those on the margins into objects of curiosity or condescension.

But Granik’s restraint as a filmmaker means she pulls it off without patronizing, fetishizing, or aestheticizing her subjects. Her characters and their relationships don’t just exist for us to watch. They’re also part of the broader fabric of an American society that pays lip service to individualists and originals, but makes it extraordinarily hard for anyone without access to resources to live freely and well.

Yet they live on. Leave No Trace is the story of a bond between a teenage daughter and her veteran father, but in the background is another kind of bond, something that keeps the world from spinning apart. That’s Granik’s subject, and Leave No Trace explores it simply but unforgettably.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
Bleecker Street Media

Leave No Trace explores the economic and mental toll of living outside the system

Leave No Trace feels like it belongs to a school of Northwest neorealism I most closely associate with Kelly Reichardt, the Portland-based director whose film Wendy and Lucy was about the tragic mercy that strangers extend to one another when they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. The pivotal moment in that film comes when a gruff but kind acquaintance hands Wendy the cash she desperately needs — only for her to discover, when she opens her hand, that it’s just a few dollars. That’s all he could spare.

A few dollars can’t save Wendy. But that gesture of compassion, despite its smallness, signifies something big. As with other neorealist movements in cinema, movies like Wendy and Lucy and Leave No Trace focus on poor and working-class people who struggle to put together enough money to facilitate a life. They look at the communities people form to support one another when the world they live in wants no part in their lives.

As in other neorealist movements, in these films the mental toll of poverty is as important as the economic toll. Anxiety and fear reshape the ways people live, and the ways they can participate in society at all.

That is what has happened to Leave No Trace’s Will (Ben Foster), a veteran of some recent, unspecified war whom we come to understand is living with PTSD. He and his teenage daughter Tom (a brilliant Thomasin McKenzie) live in a forest in Oregon, on public land, mostly off the grid. At first it looks like a post-apocalyptic film: Will and Tom harvest rainwater, sleep in a tent, eat hard-boiled eggs, and then reuse the shells as compost for their gardens, and “train” in the woods to hide when they hear others coming.

But it turns out that Will and Tom live in the woods because Will’s PTSD makes it difficult for him to live anywhere else, and he has trouble trusting any conventional social system. The details of their history are left mostly sketched, but Tom’s mother died when she was too young to remember, and Will has been raising and homeschooling her since then. They go into town sometimes to buy supplies, but otherwise they keep to themselves.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
Bleecker Street Media

Unfortunately, they get caught. Living on public land isn’t legal, and the authorities who find them are particularly concerned for Tom’s well-being. They’re brought in for questioning by social workers.

But it turns out that Tom is just fine, and Will, though certainly struggling, isn’t at all unfit to be her guardian. That this is true feels surprising, because it runs against the grain of what we might expect from a movie — that Tom is being harmed or even abused by her father. Instead, as the story moves on, we see that they really take care of one another, and that Tom is growing up to be wise, strong, smart, and brave.

Offered a house and a job by a kind stranger, they try to live within the bounds of “normality.” Tom joins 4-H and meets other kids, and Will starts working on a farm. They go to church with the people who offered them the house, and a social worker comes occasionally to check in and offer help to them as they reintegrate into society. Tom begins to like it there.

But it soon becomes clear that this bout of peace can’t last.

In Leave No Trace, people on the margins form their own safety nets

Adapted from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, Leave No Trace follows Will and Tom as they both try to find a way to live. For Tom, it’s a coming-of-age story; like any teenager, she’s exploring the ways she needs to be different from her parent, even as she loves him. For Will, it’s one piece in an ongoing struggle with a condition that was forced upon him and that has left him, and others like him, unable to readjust to a “normal” life — something he’s not even sure he wants.

It’s also, quietly, a tale of about the kindness of strangers. Villains don’t lurk in Leave No Trace. Everyone is simply trying, very hard, to do right by their neighbors and loved ones. Strangers offer not just shelter and food but companionship and compassion.

That lends the film its tension — you’re always wondering who will turn out to be the bad guy — but that’s true for the characters in the film, too. At one point, Will and Tom ask a truck driver for a lift, and he questions them very closely. It’s true that a teenage girl traveling with a man could really be with her father, but what if the situation is much more dire? “I just need to know I’m doing the right thing,” he tells them, before finally agreeing to bring them along for a while.

Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace
Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace
Bleecker Street Media

There are other strangers, too. There are earnest social workers doing the best they can within the systems they’ve built, and teenagers who want to show Tom the rabbit hutch, and a former Army doctor who checks up on people who need it, and people living in RV parks who gather at night to sing and have a beer. As in another film this year, Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, moments of human warmth often come in unexpected places and complete strangers.

It’s not an idyllic life, or a conflict-free one. Granik’s camera often settles on elements of nature — plants, insects, flowing water — that remind us both of the beauty and the danger that an existence beyond normal, safe walls harbors. But that’s balanced out by the connection between all of the people Tom and Will encounter, something that seems risky but in the end involves an empathy that goes beyond the social contract. It’s a makeshift safety net, one that people form when society’s prescribed systems leave them out for one reason or another. And there’s a bit of joy and love in it, too.

Tom’s great struggle is figuring out where she falls into this constellation, and how her trust and love for her father — who loves her more than anything in the world — will shape her own future. How much of a trace does she want to leave in the world? How much does she want to follow in her father’s footsteps? The note on which the film resolves this question is both painful and satisfying, and in the context of Granik’s careful storytelling is incredibly moving. Leave No Trace lingers when it’s over, a quiet vote of confidence in our ability to love one another even when the world persists in trying to break us apart.

Leave No Trace opens in limited theaters on June 27.

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