Cinematically and narratively, the woods have always brought a sense of danger and dread. In Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace, based upon Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, the woods and its inhabitants are a source of pure human kindness.
The film opens as Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father, Will (Ben Foster), scour the forest, assembling wood and food. The scene is idyllic. And if we didn’t know any better, it’d appear to be a camping trip rather than the Walden-esque existence that it is. Nevertheless, the two are living “off the grid.” Tom’s entire existence is foraging and making her father happy. When Will compliments his daughter’s cooked mushrooms, Tom’s face lights up. Both are soft spoken, so when these nuanced expressions happen they’re given even greater weight.
However, no matter how Eden-esque their surroundings are, it doesn’t change the world within them. Will is a former soldier suffering from PTSD, as the sound of helicopters haunts him at night. Also, the two aren’t totally dependent upon the land. Will makes trips to the city to pick-up his psychiatric meds, only to sell them to a veteran dealer who then pawns them to other veterans. The practice isn’t wholly immoral, much as we may associate drug dealing with such, but it’s in these trips to the city where there’s wonderful and subtle sound design. Much like a track fading-in on an album, the sounds of the city burrow into our ears before we even see it, as first we totally hear birds, then birds and cars, then only cars. The only time the city encroaches upon the woods is when the odd jogger is running through the forest, like a lost human in a fairy-filled forest. Which much like those fairytales, the need to not be seen is critical, because when discovered “man” will defile that Eden.
In the film’s most intense sequence, when Tom is spotted by a jogger and her and her father deploy their well-practiced hiding technique, they are apprehended by child services. It’s in the proceeding scenes, as Tom and Will are taken in by a Christmas-tree farmer, that we find how myopic their existence was. Because while living in the woods has taught them to survive from day-to-day, it’s not shown them how to “dream.” That is, it’s not told them to long for the future. Instead, their lives are as stagnant as the trees that surround them.
Nevertheless, as Tom and Will live in a rented house from this farmer, there is a political bent. The farmer, Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober), mass produces Christmas trees. Trees that serve no purpose, but to be cut down and used for a couple of weeks. The environmental judgement is obvious, and as helicopters airlift these trees away, there’s a combining of Will’s PTSD and the threat and wastefulness of the outside world. These factors, even as Tom begins to make friends, are what causes her father to make the both of them leave.
And as the two trek to Washington, and they’re helped by genuine kindness, from the trucker who just wants to do the right thing, to the gamesman who finds Will unconscious in the forest because of a fall, to Dale (Dale Dickey), giving them a trailer to live in. These moments remind us that while the world is filled with the bad, there are people who want to be and are kind.
As stated above, most of these acts of generosity happen in the forest. These instances turn our preconceived pop-culture fear of the woods on its head, especially the scenes with Dale. Dale is a mountain lady who lives in a community of trailer parks among the woods. The people who inhabit this area are artists, hunters, even a beekeeper. And in their nightly sing-a-longs and cookouts, Tom finds a real home. A home that makes her comfortable, even if her father is restless.
The film hinges on Foster and McKenzie. Between their soft-spoken characters there are rarely emotional outbursts. Instead, the success of Foster and McKenzie is dependent upon tiny pockets of expression. Foster, in this role, is at his best since The Messenger (2009), especially during the questionnaire scene. While Will and Tom are held “captive” by child services, Will is put through a computerized examine. Through it, he’s asked questions/statements, such as “I am a team player,” or “I think of hurting myself,” or “I think about my future,” and as the queries move from innocuous to personal, the psychological wall holding Will together begins to crumble. It’s an understated, emotionally devastating, and well-designed scene as Will sits in a room filled with computers, yet is adorned by forest-decorated wallpaper: a combining of the technological, with the environmental, and the psychological.
Foster’s performance alone would be enough to carry this film, but McKenzie somehow matches him. Already being hailed as the next Jennifer Lawrence, since Granik also discovered Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, McKenzie makes that distinction hold up. It can’t be fully expressed how advanced McKenzie’s approach is. Tom is at once, intelligent, observant, quiet, mischievous, and kind. Most of these traits aren’t displayed in the dialogue, instead, they require McKenzie to articulate them in a subtle and deliberate fashion. This is often displayed in the “looking back motif,” as with each home the pair leave, McKenzie appears to cast her gaze upon the space longingly and more longingly with each move. The result is an exceptional performance from a relative newcomer.
Leave No Trace, in the greatest of ironies, leaves the greatest of traces upon us. Because as we see this father and daughter survive in the wilderness through a love of each other, and this once inseparable pair begin to separate, we see a duo who informs us of our basic instinct toward kindness. We see people who only require the bare-essentials. And in that requirement, we find that we may need even less than we once perceived.