Leave No Trace (2018)

Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik returns after eight years hiatus (doing a couple of documentaries in between) with yet another thoughtful and richly detailed drama, also emerging as one of the best films of the year.  Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, Granik takes a decidedly non-judgmental approach to the story and its characters, co-adapting the novel from Portland-based author Peter Rock called, “My Abandonment”. Rock had been inspired to write the book based on an article he had read in one of the local newspapers about a father and daughter who were living, apparently for years, in a large, wooded municipal park just outside of the city of Portland.  They could keep themselves hidden within the park, but also were within walking distance of many amenities within the city that would sustain them when they needed it. Some of what is known made it into the book, and subsequently the film, even though it isn’t completely known why they led such a life, and what happened to the two once they went missing again after some time after their discovery and attempt to assimilate into society on a farm.

From there, the Granik and co-screenwriter take Rock’s book, make some changes to fill in the blanks, and come up with a story in which Ben Foster’s war vet Will, widower father to the young teenage girl with the boy’s name of Tom, is suffering from some sort of Post Traumatic Stress from his time in the service, living out in the woods, completely off the grid, roughing it in that public park in Oregon.  Granik combined these elements with the story of a man who raised his daughter off the grid in their own cabin in Oregon, wanting her to learn from nature and books rather than live her whole life in a world of conformity, though she did have exposure to those elements in her time of custody with her mother, as well as in her teen years, when she went to a high school and became more interested in conforming to society.

Granik explores the notions of what’s considered normal behavior within American society of today, and how much one can choose to not conform to those norms before society, or the government, considers such people as not allowed to pursue a way of life out of step with modernity, particularly in how a father may be choosing that life for a younger girl who may not be getting what she needs through to make it in life later should she choose to live on her own.  Those that hear of the story want to help because they think that belonging to a community, and to society as a whole, is somehow beneficial and wanted, and presume that those who drop out won’t survive long without that safety net.  Nevertheless, some seek isolation and a small sense of community among others who keep their distance, and for them, that represents the only sense of normalcy that feels right.

So, is Will’s choice to drop out of society a life choice, or is it a symptom of a problem with his mental health, perhaps due to difficulty re-entering society after a prolonged and potentially traumatic war zone experience?  If merely a choice, is it right for Will to also choose that life path for his child, or is the government in their rights to intervene and force them to live according to what’s acceptable by their standards. If they owned their own land, perhaps they could choose to live how they like, but in a public park, or in a home owned by someone else, they struggle to maintain their own identity, particularly when their landlords or neighbors require them to share their thoughts or time as a good will gesture to allow continued generosity.  If you’re rich, you’re allowed to choose to live freely on land you own, but those who aren’t on their own land have little choice, mainly because they are assumed to be homeless by circumstance, or mentally ill, drug addicted, or a fugitive of some sort (Will does sell his VA-prescribed meds to a nearby dealer, also living a life with others in the woods).

Granik puts together two very fine actors in the lead roles, with Ben Foster further honing his persona of someone barely holding himself together in a way that makes him seem like a good person trying to contain a more dangerous side of himself from emerging.  One can sense the paranoia and fear he has of losing his own ability to think autonomously in a world that seems to preach conformity at every turn, especially in knowing that his daughter could be separated from him for the life he has chosen for both of them. The outside world is a hard place to escape from, as he tries to live life of self-sustenance that even living completely out in nature cannot provide for without visiting town to purchase more foods and supplies.  Meanwhile, one gets the sense that Tom, played brilliantly by McKenzie in a breakthrough performance, while loving her father and they life they share together, also enjoys the modern conveniences, including opting for the propane cooker in place of having to hand-light all of their fires through friction, especially on wet days common in that area.  That’s not to say she embraces all that technology has to offer, but she doesn’t see why they need to live life harder than necessary just because it incurs a modest cost.

Leave No Trace is a skillfully acted, handsomely presented and thoughtful work from Granik, who enriches her story with lots of detail and makes connections to draw us in without telegraphing where it is going or what the themes of the piece are.  It’s a story about how good people can all want different things, and of whether it is good for one person to choose to drop out of society and mean no harm to anyone else, but still be perceived as if there may be something wrong with that by members of a community that prefers to share its values rather than abstain altogether.  Everyone’s trying to do what’s best, though thee will always be that tug of war between what the individual thinks is best, and what the community does as a whole.  It’s a wonderful and thoughtful story of how those competing “best interests” can sometimes find themselves at odds.

Qwipster’s rating: A

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material throughout
Running time: 109 min.

Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Dana Millican, Dale Dickey, Jeff Kober, Isaiah Stone
Director:  Debra Granik
Screenplay: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini (based on the novel, “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock)