Adapted from Peter Rock’s novel, My Abdandonment, Leave No Trace (2018) is a delicate examination of life on society’s fringes. Debra Granik’s direction captures a melancholic portrayal of a military veteran’s struggle with PTSD as he raises his daughter in the wilderness of Portland, Oregon.
Adapted from Peter Rock’s novel, My Abdandonment, Leave No Trace (2018) is a delicate examination of life on society’s fringes. Debra Granik’s direction captures a melancholic portrayal of a military veteran’s struggle with PTSD as he raises his daughter in the wilderness of Portland, Oregon. Her ability to convey emotion through atmosphere elevates this portrayal of survival outside the regular confines of society.
The film follows protagonist Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), surviving in a public park, only frequenting society for supplies. Their self-isolation is immediately conveyed in the way Tom observes some forestry workers as though they are a different species, intruding on her natural habitat.
Will’s military training is obvious from the outset, he’s comfortable and capable in this environment. He’s taught Tom well as we get an early glimpse at their contingency plan to escape the threat of capture. Yet the sounds of industry, machinery and helicopters haunt him – hinting at what he’s hiding from. Granik masterfully allows the action to infer this information. She doesn’t allow their circumstances to be idealized, rather she portrays their survival as being fraught with danger. Regardless of their skills, the very nature of their public park suggests that this can’t last.
When society does finally capture them, the two are hauntingly juxtaposed. Whilst Tom chats intimately to a social worker, Will is left with a computerized voice dictating questions for him to answer on a check box test. It’s a subtle exposition of the broken state of social support for trauma. As he breaks down, it becomes clear that this too can only be temporary.
It speaks to the strength of Foster and McKenzie’s performances that you hope life on a farm might be the compromise that works. Tom thrives in her surroundings, her ability to establish connection to nature and people is a recurring theme, as we see her rapport grow with those she comes into contact with. She takes to the structure offered by classes, Will on the other hand, slumps into a deeper despair. He longs for the wild, a return to isolation, as Tom becomes more acutely aware of the root of his anguish.
This is at the heart of the film’s conflict. Whilst their love for one another is never in doubt, it becomes apparent that they are pulling in different directions. Will has raised a daughter so capable of surviving in different surroundings, that it might force her to flee from his search for seclusion. The idea of Tom being inducted into school becomes a threat to him in more ways than one. We question if returning to the wilderness would only serve to push them away from one another. What should be a return to familiarity might instead see them truly lost.
Tension simmers throughout the film, but don’t expect it to explode. The restraint Granik shows, allowing this pressure to be defused and heightened throughout the quieter moments makes the consequences all the more impactful. Her direction, along with the empathetic performances from Foster and McKenzie, makes Leave No Trace one of the most stirring social realist movies in recent years.