America has always been too vast of a nation to account for all those who willingly go off the grid; in its thickets of forest and endless plains, there are bound to be a few who move to the margins and live off the land, in the great rugged individualist tradition. Be they the rural homeless, ardent survivalists, or various drifters, they isolate themselves from the mores of traditional housing and government rule.
Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s latest feature, is about just such a pair of people. Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live a solitary, tightly-knit lifestyle in a national park outside Portland, where their home is a tent and Tom learns a variety of outdoor skills in order to be self-sufficient. Will is a bearded ex-military man with a pool of unknowable despair behind the eyes, but he’s a loving father and the center of Tom’s life. Unmoored from school, community, and wider society, Tom and Will cling to each other even when they are forced off of public land by police and attempt to adjust to an entirely different home. But Will is a broken man—almost monosyllabic with even the kindest strangers, and marked with PTSD that seems to manifest itself most as a paranoiac restlessness.
Granik’s unhurried, deeply naturalistic approach sees her camera linger on the careworn faces of army vets and RV park tenants, and on the wide green canopies of the Pacific Northwest. She’s intent on showing the remarkable kindness of the folks that father-and-daughter encounter on their travails: truck drivers who insist on checking the well-being of their hitchhikers; beekeepers willing to entertain a kid’s curiosity; fellow veterans who offer medical help to their compatriots both physical and mental.
This homespun sensibility is never overplayed, but sees an essential goodness in blue-collar middle America that is notable for its nuance. The film is not explicit about the politics of these marginal Americans—but it doesn’t take much imagination to work out. Will’s ex-military survivalism seems pretty strident, yet he—like all the others—exists outside the realm of the political. The film is all the better for its silence on the subject: the audience is left to mull the great incoherent gulf between the decency and generosity of these people, and their support for the most self-defeating and craven of social policies. It’s no surprise that when a bulldozer comes to raze a makeshift tent city, you can see someone’s stars and stripes being vacuumed into the wreckage.
Although Will is tragically misguided in some respects, he has also successfully raised a bright, curious, caring young girl in spite of it—and in the person of Tom, we are forced to reckon not only with a particular generational divide, but with a deeply American contradiction. Granik has exhibited a depth of feeling for these characters that is fair-minded and gentle, offering a nation’s most broken and isolated progeny a safe fictional harbor in her film.