Survivalist Will (Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (McKenzie) have been living illegally in the forests of Oregon for years, foraging for food and sleeping in makeshift shelters. They only reluctantly venture to Portland to pick up some supplies and for Will to sell his PTSD medication to other struggling veterans. They are arrested by police and, after realising they don’t pose a threat, are granted meagre holdings on a farming community’s land. Will struggles to adapt and wants away again but Tom wishes to give the place a chance…
That synopsis rather undersells the magic here and probably makes it sound like a Captain Fantastic knockoff. In her first feature since the stunning 'Winter’s Bone', director Debra Granik (adapting the screenplay from Peter Rock’s novel with 'Winter’s Bone' screenwriter Anne Rosselini) delivers another intense slow-burning drama. Similar in some respects to a mash up of Kelly Reichhardt’s 'Old Joy' (the troubled central relationship) and the 'Wendy & Lucy' (the aimless wandering), Granik also adopts Reichardt’s propensity for narrative and character space.
Granik is sparse with the details here - we don’t know how long they have been living in the forest, the extent of Will’s PTSD, or what happened to Tom’s mother - but the detail she does offer is more than enough to go on for an audience to appreciate what’s at stake here. And what’s at stake here is the love dad and daughter share. The manner in which these details are delivered too is wonderful in its simplicity.
Will’s PTSD isn’t explored in any great way – we get one thousand yard stare and one nightmare – and his hatred/distrust for civilisation is never vocalised as Granik lets the visuals do the work: the city boasts only crowded car lanes, clunky machinery, and automated psychological tests. There’s organised religion and its strange rituals. To add insult to injury, the nature-loving Will is forced to work on a Christmas Tree farm where he’s given specific instructions to make the trees more appealing for more demanding customers. And yet everyone is kind. The authorities are understanding. The truck driver they hitch a lift from is very concerned for Tom’s wellbeing. And the community they encounter embraces them no questions asked.
'Leave Not Trace' isn’t about PTSD or Americans' treatment of veterans of unpopular wars: this is an allegory for the moment when dad and daughter realise they aren’t as close as they once were. Initially happy to go along with her father’s desire to live as a survivalist as long as she can be with him, the sojourn in the community causes cracks to appear in the once-tight relationship. She likes the comforts of the farm however meagre they may be. A boy takes a shine to her. She’s late home. She is willing to adapt, he is not. And not because he won’t but because he can’t. He’s too far gone. The unspoken intimacy between dad and daughter is the heart of the film and both actors – perhaps a star-making turn for McKenzie just as Granik did for Jennifer Lawrence – are flawless.
If there was one criticism of 'Winter’s Bone' it was it was somewhat emotionally detached. No such argument here as the finale is heartbreaker.