Synopsis: A father and his teen daughter live as survivalists.
In Leave No Trace we will spend most of our time following a father-daughter duo though rainy Pacific Northwest forests. Now you can imagine how a regular thirteen year old girl would react if dad suggests a camp-out. “Glamping?” she might ask. When the dad says that No, they will pitch a tent and scrounge for food, said girl will answer, Nope! and go back to watching Tiktok vids.
But Thomasin/Tom is not a regular girl. And her dad, Will is not a regular guy. Will is a war veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress. With vague fears of authorities and “the system” Will has them living on public forest land outside of Portland, Oregon. They have a tarp covered lean-to and cook what they find over an open fire. It’s raining much of the time, so fire-starting is a challenge.
Occasionally they go into the city where Will picks up his psych medication from Veterans Affairs. Then he sells the pills. After all, cash is needed for the occasional splurge, like a new rain poncho. And salt. Salt will be useful for bartering according to end times survivalists. Some zombie apocalypse pundits claim that salt can kill zombies. At the very least, Tom and Will can season their slug and moss soup with it.
Will tells Tom that they’ll be separated if anyone finds them, so he periodically stages drills wherein they run off in different directions and hide in a clump of the ubiquitous ferns. One time Tom fails the drill when her dad notices part of her hiking boot peeking out from the foliage.
I’ve heard tales told that in pre-cell phone days, youngsters could be entertained whilst camping with card games and book reading. But Will & Tom need to travel light and the constant mists would probably dissolve paper materials in no time.
I should note that the two actors, Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) are excellent in their respective roles. Ben F. looks like he’s trying to hold it together while a jumble of disasters continuously plays out in his head. Thankfully, writer-director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) doesn’t ask the actor to go berserk, sadly a trope for letting the audience know that a character is mentally ill. Instead, he stays physically busy, so busy while his head looks heavy with mental fatigue. Ms. McKenzie believably shaves several years of maturity off her real age while projecting stoicism and innocence. (Extra points for a believable American accent. IRL, she’s from New Zealand and her Kiwi accent is charmingly opaque.)
Will and Tom’s lives are basically camping in the extreme. Being cold and hungry. Drinking water by wringing wet leaves into their mouths. Trudging mile after mile, covering their tracks so that no authorities can track them. If this was a regular family set up, the teen would be yelling at her dad to stop the batsh** crazy fu**ery and she’d be right. But it’s not a regular family and Tom is too young and guileless to question her dad. We gather that the two have been living this way long enough that she accepts her dad’s behavior as, if not normal, necessary.
Early on in the film, Will & Tom get pulled onto the grid. I was relieved because I anticipated relief from watching the tedium of their days. Also I was glad to see that there were social service agents working to place the father and daughter in housing. When Will is questioned as to his mood, he veers away from telling the truth. When Tom has educational testing, she places as above grade level. Okay, so the director shows Tom looking at a Ranger Rick-type nature magazine at the campsite. But it stretched credulity that with all the hours they needed to spend hunting, gathering and running the crazy “drills,” that the dad would have the time or wherewithal to keep Tom up to speed on literature, social studies, mathematics, foreign language and science. Well, I guess he could teach her a fair amount about botany and compass use.
I soon began questioning how they could elude fate and nature for so long without disaster. No rotten teeth? No mishaps with the hatchet? No poisonous mushrooms or toxic squirrel meat? Do they ever do laundry? How does she handle her period? This may seem like nitpicking, but the movie invites it. We aren’t excused from one minute of boring drudgery in the woods. The narrative stutters and at some points we may as well be watching a loop of rainy day hiking.
I knew things would be more interesting when they are housed in town. In town, being a relative term, as they are set up in a mobile home at a Christmas tree farm. Tom has her own room. The social worker brings her a donated bike. She meets a teen neighbor who is practicing his building skills by working on a tiny house. He invites her to a 4-H club meeting where other kids her age are learning how to show their pet rabbits. Tom is intrigued. So was I. The big, fat adorable bunnos were quite compliant about being cuddled and having their long Easter rabbit ears stroked. Tom likes all of this. Guess who doesn’t?
I felt sorry for Tom. And for myself. Because when I saw her dad rolling his hands over his head, I knew he’d start itching to oil up his hiking boots and drag her back to the woods. For our own good, you can almost hear him thinking.
In spite of pacing problems, Leave No Trace asks ethical questions beyond what is “owed” veterans. There may be agreement that they deserve mental and physical health care, even as tax dollars easily find their way to Defense projects, but not soldiers, their families or veterans. But what about routinely sending people off to war in the first place? How often is this really necessary? And how can anyone’s brain be expected to absorb multiple tours of violence and trauma and be able to recover?
I was glad that the filmmakers didn’t show harrowing flashbacks– seeing broken Will lets our imaginations fill in the blanks. But we have no sense of what life was like for Tom before her dad took them out of society. And society is what’s pulling at the young heroine. We learn before the last frame if Tom, who is on the knife’s edge of having just enough maturity to question her dad, does dare to voice her own needs.
P.S. The movie is a good anecdote to the notion of going to the Pacific Northwest and being able to stay dry if you plan to go camping. Don’t do it. Just hike during the day and then hightail it back to your rental for farm-to-table takeout and a playlist full of the Decemberists.