Leave No Trace: a film review

I saw a compelling film at the cinema a few weeks back, an American film released just this year called Leave No Trace. It tells the story of an man and his teenage daughter who live off-grid in dense woods on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.

It’s a beautifully shot film, and superbly acted by the two leads who, despite being relatively quiet and mild-mannered characters, masterfully dominate and steer the story. Moreover the pair, while not defined by extensive dialogue or overly expressive behaviour, convey an enormous amount of information and emotion, and draw the audience into their lives with affection and intrigue. The film has been lingering in my mind for a long time now, and I’m not fully sure why. Perhaps it’s because the day after watching the film I hit the woods myself, walking from Inverness to Drumnadrochit, a twenty mile hike that gave me plenty time to imagine myself being hidden away in the wilds and to digest and reflect on the film.

I’m writing this review – which contains a spoiler of the ending – partly to commend the film but also to try to help myself to think further about precisely why the film has made such an impact on me.

The pair live off the land, foraging for food among the trees, collecting water, and maintaining their self-built camp in which they survive in some comfort if not quite luxury. The two are a good, solid team and pass their time – when not in maintenance or foraging mode – exploring, reading, playing chess and talking. They trade with a homeless group who live nearby, and they pay occasional visits to Portland itself to stock up on supplies they need and to visit a hospital, where the father collects medication (which he later sells to the homeless folk).

The father, Will, an emotionally troubled military veteran, appears to be fearful of deep interaction with others and as such is content in isolation. The daughter, Tom, resourceful and skilled, is quietly confident, intelligent and a voracious reader, and has a strong, warm relationship with her dad. We learn that Tom’s mother died before she knew her, and other than a lingering sadness she seems content with her life in the woods.

Life for the two seems to be hard work on one level, but fundamentally good.

Until, that is, they are found by the authorities and removed into care. While the first part of the film paints a picture of a lifestyle that is if not idyllic then certainly admirable for some of its simplicity and oneness with nature, we find our two main characters to be completely fish out of water in the hands of social services. Whether in bizarre psychological tests, interaction with technology they are not familiar with, or strange, probing questions from the social workers, the two are clearly shell-shocked by their sudden transplantation into “the world”. But before long they are hooked up with a comfortable house far out of town, with a job for Will on a Christmas tree plantation, and with regular visits from their well-meaning social worker.

While Tom adjusts and begins to make friends, Will struggles. He is uncomfortable in a house, feeling a claustrophobia which he cannot cope with. He struggles with not knowing where Tom is all the time. And in one haunting scene a low-flying helicopter used at at the tree plantation has him cowering in anguish, clutching his head. This once strong, confident master of bushcraft is now in a terrain and a life that he cannot control. So one very early morning he tells Tom to pack a bag: they are off.

Enduring a gruesome trip north to the colder climes of Washington state, they survive low temperatures, freezing rain and exhaustion – plus a nasty accident for Will – before they are taken in by a kindly hippy commune whose lives involve growing food, playing music, and generally being nice to each other in a way that is portrayed as heart-warming without being schmaltzy.

Again Tom settles and flourishes, and again Will can’t cope, the unspecified details of his trauma weighing heavily on his ability to engage with others. The film culminates in a face-off between those two irreconcilable perspectives, as Tom – grown in strength and confidence – finds a voice and articulates a purpose for herself.

And for me it is that conflict – not obvious at first, but slowly, softly moving to the fore – that defines Leave No Trace and makes it the powerful film that it is. Because this is no idyllic portrayal of life free from technology. This is no ode to the old ways nor a manifesto railing against the inhuman shackles of modern life. Far from it. Granted, it’s a loving poem to the natural world – the shots of the forest in Oregon are gorgeous. But we’re left in no doubt as to the difficulties a life like this contains. Will and Tom’s existence – both in their original established camp and especially when they are on the run – is tough, and the story doesn’t shy away from mocking any idealistic yearning for natural freedom we might have, by way of the harsh Hobbesian realism of modern humanity’s inability to cope with it alone.

Indeed, if the film can be distilled down to one key point, it is that people need people. It’s a refreshing message in an era where – not least in the USA itself but also over here – there is a growing fear of “the other”, as people become dehumanised by technology and the modern world, and of course at the brink of destruction by war, climate change or whatever else you might identify as today’s great threats. And so Will’s yearning to be away from society, and to take Tom with him, does not win the day.

And that call to arms for community and for social interaction is so strong that even Will himself gets it, at least in part. Though clearly unhappy amongst the help he and Tom receive, he nonetheless engages politely and gratefully, and recognises the kindness he and Tom are receiving. So the rejection of it is in no way an indictment of the constraints of social living, but merely a portrayal of Tom’s state of mind. That his military experiences and other underlying psychological problems drive him away from the help of others is, essentially, a reminder of that old adage that if you live alone, you die alone.

However, that alludes to just one weakness I found somewhat frustrating in the film. While the compulsion Will has for continued isolation is portrayed powerfully and poignantly, it’s never fully explained. The psychological scars caused by his his military experiences – and perhaps by other traumas in his life such as the loss of Tom’s mother – are never convincingly articulated, and as such I was left with not quite the full sense that Will was incurable that I think the film wanted to give the viewer. In one important exchange between father and daughter in the hippy camp, Will says that despite the help of others, “…we need…”. Yet before anything telling is revealed, Tom interrupts by saying something like “no, you need. Maybe what I need is different from what you need.” And yet what he needs, and the reason he needs it, is never satisfyingly set out.

But maybe it doesn’t need explaining. At the very end of the film, we see Will head for the forests once more. He will, it seems, live alone, but happy. And should he die alone too, at least we are left with the impression that he will die happy too… or at least happier than if he were among people. And it is among people that we leave Tom at the film’s conclusion, comfortable among the new community she has found. In a touching final scene, we see her leaving food by a tree for an unseen hermit the community supports, staring into the sky and clicking her tongue in a repeat of an affectionate communication she has had with her father.

While the conclusion is essentially optimistic in tying up the story – both main characters are, despite their difficulties and differences, ultimately doing what makes them happy – there is a poignant mystery behind the basis for the film. As the film’s Wikipedia entry outlines, Leave No Trace is an adaptation of a novel, My Abandonment, by the American writer Peter Rock. That novel itself – which perhaps I should try to track down – is based on a real story of a father and daughter found living off-grid in the woods near Oregon in 2004.

Like their fictitious equivalents in Leave No Trace, the real life pair appeared to be living happily, their relationship was healthy, and the daughter’s educational ability was in some ways better than her age peers. As you can find out from the newspaper articles and video on this page of Peter Rock’s website, the father and daughter were brought into a settled community for a while. But then, all of a sudden, they completely disappeared once more. It’s a moving story, even more so on the face of it than the film, due to the fact that nobody to this day seems to know what happened to them.

Perhaps that’s why Leave No Trace has stuck in my head so long: its real stars are still out there, somewhere…

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