Leave No Trace (2018)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Debra Granik
Run Time
1 hour and 48 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Exodus 20:12
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:2-4

You will long remember this tender father-daughter film by Debra Granik and co-scriptwriter Anne Rosellini. Will (Ben Foster) is a widower and Iraqi war veteran afflicted by PTSD. He and his daughter have been living in a public forest at the edge of Portland, Oregon for some time, judging by the survival skills that he has taught his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), a “tomboy’ in name as well as lifestyle.

They seem to be living fairly well off the grid, with an occasional trek into the city where he checks into the VA hospital for his meds, which he sells to nearby homeless vets and then purchases the necessities they cannot produce in the woods. In the store they both differentiate between what they “want” and what they “need.” In the forest Tom is adept at picking herbs and edible mushrooms, “feathering” sticks for firewood, boiling eggs, and catching rain drinking water in tarps. Then comes the day when a hiker spots Tom, and soon thereafter a crew of forestry and social service agents arrest and take them to a center. From the results of tests, it is apparent that Will has done a good job of home-schooling Tom—though the kindly caseworker Jean (Dana Millican) points out that the girl can gain from the social skills learned at a public school.

When Jean finds Will work on at Mr. Williams’ (Jeff Kober) Christmas tree farm, the pair move into a clean house. They attend a welcoming service at his boss’s church where the friendly pastor invites them to return. Tom is ready to accept, but Will, though he shows no hostility, is clearly not interested. Tom becomes friends with Isaiah (Isaiah Stone), a boy who raises rabbits for his 4-H project, and it appears that the plot will move in a familiar teenage romantic arc. However, adapting to a new way of life is not easy, as is hinted on the very first night in their new quarters when father and daughter move their bedding out of the house, so they can sleep under the stars. Within a few days Will cannot stand the regimen, and so, their backpacks full, the pair slips away, boarding a bus and then hiking into the forested hills.

By now Tom, who has in the past shown she has a strong will—early on when Will does not give up his futile attempt at starting a fire with knife and flint, Tom starts up their propane camp stove and cooks the food for them both—is questioning her dad’s decision, because he clearly has no planned destination. They are cold and tired. At last they come upon a vacant cabin and find some canned food inside. Then, when he injures his ankle and is knocked unconscious, Tom finds help from a group that regard themselves as an old hippy community, living apart in an old logging camp. As Will heals the two enjoy the group singing, and the group’s matriarch Dale (Dale Dickey), who is reluctant to take money from Tom, offers them her rental RV for a permanent residence—but can Will settle in one spot for long? And if he decides to move on, what will Tom, who by now has seen the value of a social life, do?

Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, which in turn was inspired by a true new story, the film offers a refreshing look at outsiders and insiders, refusing to demonize anyone, as so many films do. At a time when a spirit of nastiness permeates our social and political discourse, this film reveals the tender kindness that also runs through our land. Kindness is displayed on both sides of the divide, the social worker going out of her way to place the father and son in a congenial location, and stranger after stranger offering help as the father and daughter travel along. In the end, however, Tom must decide whether always following her father away from community and into isolation. Her growing maturity is revealed in her comment to her troubled father, “I don’t have the same problem you have.”

As we see in the heart-wrenching final scene, this is a chronicle of a girl’s coming of age when she must choose her own path. That she will have the maturity to do this successfully we see in a beautiful scene when she asks her father if he has ever seen the inside of a “bee house.” Earlier a kind woman had dressed Tom in a hat and net, removed the cover, pulled out a frame covered with honey and bees, all the while assuring her the bees did not want to sting her. Apparently, Tom had returned to the hive several times, for now as she equips them with protective hats and netting, like her mentor, she removes her thick glove and lets the bees light on her hand. Will does not speak, but it is plain that it is his daughter who is the teacher now. Taking his hand and laying it atop the hive, she invites him to “feel the warmth” of the hive—perhaps it is the warmth of community that attracts her to the RV community in the woods, a warmth that her father’s PTSD prevents him from feeling. At many points we see how much father and daughter love each other, but Tom learns, filial love must not block her path to maturity and independence.

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the August 2018 issue of Visual Parables.


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