Most would consider Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) to be homeless. But to the father and daughter, they’ve made their home in the world.
Living hidden in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, Will and Tom have made a life for themselves. They pick mushrooms to eat, collect rainwater to drink. In their tent at night, they bang books together to drive away the wolves. They practice concealing themselves from sight in case a backpacker or forestry crew wanders near their camp. Once a week they go into town to collect Will’s Veterans Administration checks to spend on supplies, but otherwise, they have no need of the outside world.
One of the many marvelous things about Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” is that the film makes this existence plausible, so that we understand the appeal of such a life off the grid and its perils. Granik, making her first feature film since 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” (she also made the excellent documentary “Black Dog”), lets real life creep into her films in all its beauty and unpredictability. We feel like we’re eavesdropping on this unconventional family rather than watching actors perform for us on the screen.
Will is a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who can’t cope with modern society. On those trips into town, we can almost see his skin crawling as he yearns to get back to the forest. At 13, Tom naturally has more of a curiosity about the wider world, but is devoted to her father. She needs him for survival in the woods, but he needs her love and support to survive as well. When asked where her home is, Tom replies simply, “My dad.”
It can’t last. Will and Tom are discovered, and brought back to civilization by the authorities. Well-meaning people give them a house and get Will a job at a tree farm. Tom is open to this new kind of “normal” life, but Will can’t bear it. After living in the wildness of the forest, there’s almost cruel irony in his job at the farm, an outdoor assembly line where Christmas trees are chopped down and packaged for sale.
The heart of “Leave No Trace” is the relationship between father and daughter, and the impasse that develops when they realize that each can’t live in the other’s world anymore. The drama plays out in hushed tones, and both Foster and McKenzie are wonderful at expressing so much with so little. Foster is known for playing intense characters (“Hell or High Water”), and conveys the war within Will’s mind with restraint and sensitivity.
McKenzie, a New Zealand actor, plays Tom with a mix of innocence and wisdom. At times, she steps up to be the emotional parent for her damaged father, gently leading him on. This feels like a real parent-child relationship in all of its depth and complexity, which makes us feel how much is at risk.
While I fervently wish Granik would make more movies, there’s a patience and care to the way she makes movies, an appreciation for detail and nuance, that makes them bracingly different from any other movies being made. “Leave No Trace” was worth the wait.