Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s latest wilderness feature starts in the luscious forests of the Pacific Northwest, a far cry from the barren Ozarks of her 2010 downer Winter’s Bone. In heart of this national park, Will, an Afghanistan War Vet, and Tom, his precocious 14-year-old daughter, live practically. They cook mushrooms on a propane stove when it’s too damp for them to kindle. Thick flannels and techy waterproof jackets keep them warm foraging during the day and sleeping through the night in a slick, nylon tent. Together, they camp in harmony, as they have for Tom’s entire life.
But one day, a team of armed park rangers removes them from their home (it’s illegal to live permanently in a national park) and places them in police custody. A child service agent then assigns them to a small house on a Christmas tree farm, where Will’s PTSD worsens while performing his new environmentally harmful job.
Despite these misfortunes, Leave No Trace forgives, making it harder to watch. Will doesn’t resent his daughter for being spotted near their camp by a random jogger who tipped off their captors. And Tom doesn’t despise the rangers for forcing them out of their home. Even the child service agent doesn’t condemn Will for depriving his daughter of education after discovering Tom’s above-average reading level. This contagious understanding can seem a little precious at first, but with persistence it becomes convincing and ultimately heartbreaking.
While the film’s characters are noble, Granik tries not to glorify nature. Most establishing shots in the forest lack focal points. Instead, competing greens engulf one another into a state of recursion, suggesting sustainability, not extraordinariness. Neither does Granik attempt to vilify civilization. In one seen, warm fluorescent lights welcome Tom and Will to a VA hospital, and in another, supermarket aisles feel wide, as opposed to industrial and claustrophobic. Granik’s pseudo-documentary directing suits a story that earnestly attempts to feel unbiased.
But more than Granik’s directing, Thomasin McKenzie’s stellar performance as Tom drives the film’s believability. She precisely imitates her father’s light steps and soft, curt voice as if she really were raised only by him. While she certainly plays pure, she never comes across as naïve. Disagreements with her father are delivered with begrudging calculation. Will, played by Ben Forester, volleys well enough, slightly overbearing but reasonably emphatic.
Leave No Trace departs heavily from the brutality of Granik previous film, Winter’s Bone. While the Ozark’s cruel treatment of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) might have felt slightly more compelling than the generosity of those working in the legal system to Tom and Will, both ensembles successfully argue that there is nothing as luxurious as being left alone. To Granik, an off-the-grid life still seems attainable and something worth a fight.
Leave No Trace was Aired as part of Princeton’s Visual Arts Fall Film Series. The series will return in the spring with Free Solo.