Some movies say everything by saying very little. Such is the case with Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik’s tender portrayal of Will, a veteran suffering from PTSD, who lives with his daughter Tom in the woods near Portland, Ore.
We don’t learn exactly what Will experienced in combat, but it was clearly very bad. The only person he can bear to be with is Tom, whom he has brought up from infancy after his wife died. An expert survivalist, Will has set up a perfect camp in the woods, where Tom helps forage and also practices drills to know how to hide from outsiders—and leave no trace. Their existence seems at once ideal and completely unsustainable.
When the two are eventually arrested, Will struggles to adapt to regular society while Tom is delighted to discover the world. So goes the human drama of the film, as Tom must decide between her love for her father and her desire to live her own life. She tells him in one of the most poignant scenes, “I don’t have the same problem you have.”
Granik is best known for her 2010 drama, Winter’s Bone, the film that brought Jennifer Lawrence to the limelight. While Leave No Trace is not terrifying like Winter’s Bone, Granik clearly loves to focus on the people who dwell by choice or bad luck on the margins of American society.
Ben Foster gives a first-rate performance as Will, expressing his thoughts and emotions through simple gestures and facial expressions, exemplifying the plight of a broken soldier.
As such, Leave No Trace provides a low-key but subtle critique of how our society treats veterans, from the pill-dispensing V.A. hospital to well-meaning but ineffective social services—and, worst of all, the calculating charity of the well-to-do. While only appearing in a short scene, the church comes across as welcoming yet completely out of touch.
Like Jennifer Lawrence before her, Thomasin McKenzie offers a breakout performance. Thanks to her skill, Tom’s relationship with Will seems completely natural and achingly bittersweet.
Based on My Abandonment, a novel by Peter Rock, the film moves at a snail’s pace compared to most summer movies. But that pace allows you to soak in the beauty of the Oregon woods and to appreciate the connection between Will and Tom.
Ultimately, Leave No Trace asks us to reflect on how some mental scars may never, ever disappear—and peace will come only at a considerable sacrifice. (Bleecker Street)