In the film Leave No Trace, a father and his teenage daughter are living in the woods—we see them foraging for food, mending tarps and other equipment, and doing drills in which they practice running and hiding from people who might be looking for them. The skillful opening scenes make it clear that these two aren’t camping out—this is how they live, and the affectionate bond between them is well established. What we don’t know is why. The father, Will, is played by Ben Foster in one of his most intense yet understated performances. The daughter, named Tom, is played by newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. They both seem happy and content to be off the grid, in the wilderness together. The trouble is, they’re living on public land, in a state park near Portland, Oregon, and that’s not legal. When one small mistake by Tom reveals their presence to the authorities, their lives are suddenly and forcibly changed.
Leave No Trace is directed by Debra Granik, best known for her excellent 2010 feature Winter’s Bone, which introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world. Like that film, this one was co-written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, also concerns rural characters living on the edges of society, and is adapted from a book, in this case a novel by Peter Rock called “My Abandonment.” Granik has polished her craft in the intervening years—Leave No Trace has a style of simplicity and grace that is rare today. No frills, no unnecessary dramatic flourishes here, just a beautiful character-driven glimpse into a different way of seeing things.
Thomasin McKenzie is an eighteen-year-old actress from New Zealand, but her character in the film is more in the thirteen- to fourteen-year-old range. She’s completely convincing and authentic. The performance is actually a marvel, her character tentatively balancing adoration and loyalty to her Dad, with an awakening need for social interaction and stability.
Will is a veteran suffering from PTSD. He gets money by selling his VA medications on the black market; and father and daughter go into the city occasionally for supplies, careful all the while not to reveal anything about themselves. We in the audience will wonder, naturally, why Will is compelled to live away from society. Is there some secret reason? But Granik keeps her focus on the reality of the moment rather than back story, and Ben Foster conveys Will’s fear and rejection of the world without overt hostility or rancor. He’s an intelligent, respectful person who just doesn’t want what everyone thinks he should want. At one point he tells his daughter, “We can still think our own thoughts,” but clearly that’s not enough.
Sensitive and free of sensationalism, Leave No Trace is ultimately heart-wrenching in its depiction of an extraordinary parent-child relationship confronted with decisions that cannot be escaped.
Meanwhile, on the “stranger than fiction” front, a documentary by Tim Wardle called Three Identical Strangers covers the true story of three young men living in different parts of New York State who discovered in 1980, quite by chance, that they were identical triplets, adopted by three separate families, none of whom had any idea the others existed. The triplets became a short-lived media sensation, going on all the talk shows where their many similarities, such as their identical taste in cars, cigarettes, and women, were celebrated. But later, troubling questions arose as to how and why the adoption agency separated them at birth. I won’t tell you anything more about this fascinating bit of history—only that the surprises keep coming, and Three Identical Strangers becomes a lot more than just a novelty film.