Debra Granik’s film uses the unusual story of a father and daughter living in the woods to tell the classic coming-of-age narrative of parent-child separation. This is the third article in our Special Issue on Leave No Trace, which is now available as an eBook.
Films about living off the grid tend to hurtle toward a collision of worlds. In Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, military veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in an illegal camp in Portland’s Forest Park. Overhead, sunlight filters through the canopy, and a spider spins its thin, silvery web. Father and daughter spend their days trekking through the brush, scavenging for mushrooms, and fortifying their tent — but it is only a matter of time before they are banished from Eden and forced (like the rest of us) to play by society’s rules.
In Leave No Trace, Granik uses the high-stakes set-up of her genre — the divide between nature and civilization — to trace an ordinary familial journey: the process of separating from a parent during adolescence. In the wilderness, Tom and Will are closer than they would be otherwise; their survival depends on their cohesion as a unit. Upon re-entering society, however, they stumble into a new economy of space, and the state draws boundaries between them. Through trial and error — and a zigzagging odyssey into and out of civilization — Tom and Will seek a new equilibrium in their relationship, one that will afford Tom the chance to follow her own desires and intuitions.
Setting Leave No Trace in the wilderness allows Granik to portray an extremely enmeshed — yet, under the circumstances, healthy — father-daughter relationship. In the park, Tom and Will have little use for boundaries. They work together to find food and start a fire, and they share a tent because, as Tom later tells a social worker, “It’s warmer with two people at night.” This proximity enables a fluidity in their roles. One night, Will shoos a pack of wolves and covers Tom with an extra blanket; later that night, she comforts him after a PTSD nightmare. It’s tempting to assume that a child should not bear the burden of parental trauma, but Tom does not visibly resent their co-dependence.
After their camp is raided, Tom’s adolescence is fast-tracked by the state. Father and daughter are torn apart, questioned individually, and forced to sleep in different facilities. They must explain their relationship to the bureaucracy: while Will takes a reductive, true-false computer test to determine his fitness as a parent, a social worker assesses Tom’s reading and arithmetic skills. At this point, Tom is more anxious to reunite with Will than she is intrigued by her new surroundings. When other teenagers at the foster centre ask after her father, she reflexively looks over her shoulder — as if, like a phantom limb, he is still “there.” It’s painful to watch Tom lie wide-awake in the dark, trying to fall asleep on a bunk bed, especially when we remember how peacefully she slept by her father’s side.
After Tom and Will are discovered, the architecture of their new, state-sanctioned home begins to sew distance between them. At the behest of social workers, they move into a farmer’s guesthouse, which is at once more spacious and more divided. To return her father’s favourite sweater, for instance, Tom must leave her room, traverse the hallway, and knock on his door. In this scene, physical distance not only stands for but also reinforces emotional distance. Tom finds Will seated in the opposite corner of the bedroom — he couldn’t be further away from her — with his head in his hands. When he gives Tom permission to enter, to join him on the bed, a chasm between them persists. He wants to review the mechanics of their capture, while her focus is on the future: “Are we going to be okay here?” she asks. He tries to comfort her, but his sagging posture and wariness to make eye contact betray resignation.
At the farm, Tom not only encounters other adolescents but also begins to imagine a future that is not overly determined by her father’s past. In one scene, she strikes up a conversation with her neighbour, a teenage boy who is in the midst of building a tiny house. He may want to become a farmer, he says, and shows her around the bare bones of his work-in-progress home. When he points out where the sink and sleeping loft will be installed, he prompts Tom to picture the future: what if adulthood is a structure you, as a teenager, get to build? Immediately, this encounter changes the way Tom engages with her father: she comes home late and, when it’s clear he was worried about her, she confronts him about his refusal to use a phone.'Tom's neighbour prompts her to picture the future: what if adulthood is a structure you, as a teenager, get to build?'Click To Tweet
Shortly thereafter, Will decides to return to nature — a choice that can be viewed as an effort to rewind his daughter’s adolescence, to recreate the world in which he knew how to be her father. He awakens Tom in the middle of the night and insists that they board a bus to Washington. In an unnamed forest up north, the sky darkens, the temperature drops, and she begins to suffer from frostbite. Once again, their survival depends on their degree of proximity. Will warms Tom’s feet on his bare chest and improvises a shelter out of tree branches — but this intimacy comes across as pitifully jerry-rigged, as Will goes to great lengths to save Tom from a circumstance he created. We have to wonder if, on some level, Will orchestrates a near-death situation in order to recover a sense of his own worth and his daughter’s dependence.
Paradoxically, Will’s mental health issues are a boon to Tom’s development, as she learns to take care of her father and take responsibility for her own life. After staying overnight in a deserted cabin, Will leaves to look for water or, perhaps, to buy groceries — a choice which seems pathological because its logic is so unclear. Now it is Tom who plays the role of caregiver, waiting for her father, lighting candles, and screaming his name into the night. We have seen the reverse of this scene before, when Tom came home late after befriending her neighbour. In this case, however, Tom seizes control over the situation. The next morning, she tracks Will down and saves him by rebelling: against his wishes, she asks for help.
After Will’s injury, Tom and Will are welcomed into a trailer village, which seems, at first, a utopic compromise between his and her needs. For the first time, they encounter a community of people with shared values, midway between nature and civilization. A former army medic tends Will’s wounds and lends him a dog, but he doesn’t micromanage Will’s recovery. Instead, he understands PTSD firsthand and respects Will’s autonomy. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman helps settle Tom and Will into their own, secluded RV, which protects his privacy and enables Tom to participate in the community. The camera shows us how their neighbours live and what Tom and Will’s life might look like if they put down roots: residents appear to spend most of their time outside, gathered around campfires and singing songs. Still, Will fixates on escape.
It is an asset to Leave No Trace that both father and daughter develop over the course of the movie. Ultimately, Tom draws a boundary that gives her relationship with her father a future — and, what is more, Will respects her wishes. After Tom scrounges up the money to rent their RV, Will decides it is time, once again, to disappear. Tom packs up her belongings and follows him into the forest — but then she stops. She cannot allow her ability to empathize to derail her life, and every step she takes following in his footsteps is a betrayal of her own desires. For his part, Will does not argue or try to stop her. Having watched her begin to build a life in the trailer park, he knows she is ready to live it.'Tom cannot allow her ability to empathize to derail her life, and every step she takes following in her father's footsteps is a betrayal of her own desires.'Click To Tweet
Toward the end of Leave No Trace, the camera returns once again to the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t design of a spider web. By the time this image repeats, we understand that Tom and Will are like the spider — theirs is a home that works with, rather than against, distance. The end of Leave No Trace is the beginning of Tom’s adulthood: she is the trace her father leaves behind. She is also more than that.