Based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Leave No Trace is directed by Debra Granik, who also co-writes the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, and offers us an intimate and refreshingly original drama that focuses around Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), a father and daughter who live within Forest Park, a national park near Portland, Oregon, and have done so for years without anyone knowing.
One normal day, and after a momentary encounter, they’re discovered by the local authorities and removed from the park – as it’s illegal to live there in the States. After various meetings with social services, and personality tests that make little to no sense to Will or Tom considering they’ve stayed away from technology and the loop of the everyday, they’re relocated to a new ‘normal’ home by the social service agency.
What’s particularly interesting about Granik’s initial premise is how involved you feel with the characters right from the start. While Will and Tom’s relationship doesn’t always rely on the spoken word, we witness them interacting in their day-to-day forest life and it’s so convincingly portrayed that you instantly connect and feel their association to each other. Even from early on, this is down to terrific performances from Foster and McKenzie juxtaposed with the gratifyingly refreshing normality of events, even if their relationship becomes both bittersweet and strained as the story progresses.
The early stages of Leave No Trace show us, first-hand, the struggle between the pair of wanting to live outside the system, but also being pulled back into it. While Will wants to head back to the Forest and is seemingly dealing with PTSD – deftly displayed by subtle hints and reminders of why he’s doing what he’s doing – there’s also Tom, a young teenage girl who learns that she enjoys the benefits of living indoors and clearly wants to attach herself to the society she sees outside their small world.
The conflicting worlds between them is what pulls and sways the story but all along, it’s also a tale of family, friendship and even a reflection of a very real, every day struggle for people in any walk of life. Early on, when they’re initially in social care, there’s a blandness to the office or room they’re being held in but we see a wall with a huge picture of a forest and plants dotted around, as if to reflect the world they’ve been taken by as it highlights the adjustment between their old lives and the one they’ve being led towards.
While both actors are excellent throughout, it’s young Thomasin McKenzie as Tom who stands out with a remarkable, poised and strong performance as she fights with her own beliefs and the desire to help her Father through his struggle. Even in her fearful moments, Tom continues to step out and take the world on. She’s a genuine survivor who’s been given all the right tools by her Father, even if he doesn’t know which way to turn but it’s evident that their love, from a father to a daughter, is genuine to the core. Ben Foster is also impressive, never backing away from trying to protect his daughter but gradually realising he can’t make decisions about her life anymore, but he’s never cruel either and it’s as if he can’t escape from his own head, which makes their situation even more affecting.
Leave No Trace is deeply uplifting and strangely, quite unexpectedly, original because the people they meet along the way are always kind, helpful souls. This might seem like a small thing but in an era of fear, and especially of the unknown, this approach must be strongly applauded. Everyone they met wants to help and this more natural approach to the world around us, as most people actually are good, it means there’s always hope among the canopies of the trees above them. I also felt an essence of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake within the narrative, as it questions how we treat people who are considered outside of the ‘circle’ and also how we force our so-called social values on others.
I highly recommend Leave No Trace and whilst it’s undoubtedly bittersweet, and you’d be a tough nut not to crack at the quivering lip of sadness, it’s also full of so much strength and a vital message to everyone: Be Kind.