[This rant contains spoilers.]
Sometimes I see a movie and I just can’t keep my mouth shut. Such is the case with Leave No Trace – the gorgeous, quiet film by Debra Granik (based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock). It debuted to rave reviews and is Granik’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone.
I was excited to see this film – the lush scenery of the local Portland parks called to me, and I was curious how my hometown was going to represent. As expected, the cinematography is stunning, and I was suitably embarrassed that such riches exist in my backyard that I have yet to take full advantage of. No wonder everyone is moving to Oregon – it’s freaking awesome!
The plot revolves closely around the unshakeable father/daughter bond of Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), who live off the grid in Forest Park. Will, a war veteran who suffers from PTSD, cannot stand much human contact, and has raised Tom the only way he knows how – completely alone. (Tom’s mother is briefly alluded to – she’s passed away, but it is not mentioned how.) The movie opens in near silence as we watch the duo seamlessly do chores around their tiny campsite, making their connection clear from the outset
Amazingly Tom never complains – she seems down to live completely isolated with very few comforts. (A square of chocolate is a big deal in her world.) Even when they make the trek to Portland, she doesn’t seem turned by civilization and willingly goes back to her tent at the end of the day. Obviously, this is the life she’s familiar with, but it is remarkable because we're also talking about a 13-year old girl. Think about that for a moment. I remember completely falling apart when I was separated from my Walkman for a few hours, which I’s declared my “best friend.” (Yes, I just said, “Walkman.” And yes, I’m old.) Of course, I was raised in the suburbs with a completely different set of expectations, but there’s a part of me that thinks people are people – and there are certain things that young women want. (Not a Walkman, but a burgeoning connection to their peers, in one way or another.) Also, am I the only weirdo who was thinking about Tom’s rapidly approaching period? Was her dad going to force her to use moss as a tampon? Surprisingly the plot did not touch on this – but it would’ve if I was in charge!
Along the way, there are glimpses that Tom has begun to long for more. There’s a small, touching scene when she finds a simple necklace (a silver seahorse on a black cord) on a trail and asks Will, “Can I keep it if it’s still here when we get back?” He agrees, and she tries to bury it under some bark. He catches her and makes her leave it out in plain sight. It’s a moment that highlights their honesty and commitment to simple living, but it’s also a glimmer into the longing of material possessions. She has so little, and she just wants this one thing – the longing is stark. (Happily, the necklace is later shown around her neck. Girlfriend deserves some bling!)
When Will and Tom finally get caught and are forced to leave the park, they luck into a plush housing situation, thanks to a dedicated case worker and the kindness of a stranger who’s willing to provide them a home in exchange for labor on his Christmas Tree farm. The house is lovely and spacious, but for Will it might as well be a straitjacket. His misery is palpable as he sits on the edge of his bed – what should be a relief is clearly worse for him than his tent. However, this is where Tom begins to blossom –she’s exposed to societal norms for the first time, and she likes it.
Needless to say, this situation doesn’t last long, with Will forcing them to leave in the middle of the night. And this is where I began to get seriously irritated with Will. He has the right the raise his child in (virtually) any way he sees fit, and this is also in no way meant to make light of PTSD. (My father fought in the Vietnam War and I take the sacrifices veterans make very seriously.) That said, I wanted scream at the screen, “Buck up, dude!” (Ah, eloquence.) For Will, despite his serious disorder, still seemed capable of functioning fully as a parent. There’s no doubt our society is fucked up and that the never-ending pursuit of money has absolutely made this world a compromised place. I get not wanting to take part in that, if one is able. But here’s the thing – you have a child, and that child should come first. Will, in many ways, refuses to make that sacrifice.
After leaving the work-for-shelter setup, things continually spiral into danger. They’re constantly on the move, with winter rapidly approaching. After a near disaster where Will nearly loses his life, they find solace in a trailer park deep in the woods, hosted by the kindness of a stranger. This is the perfect compromise – Will is surrounded by nature, while Tom has access to shelter and the comforts of societal interaction. (The other members of the park meet each evening for potlucks and music by a shared campfire.) And yet… it is still not remote enough for Will. He wants to move on, yet again.
This is where Tom finally puts her foot down, essentially becoming the parent. This lifestyle is not appropriate for a child, and she can no longer continue to cleave to her father’s selfish tendencies. For, let’s be honest, that’s what this is. Pure, unadulterated selfishness. Again, I’m not here to make light of PTSD. But there is help for that disorder – specifically in EMDR therapy, derived solely to relieve patients of anxiety. But Will doesn’t seek that out – or any help at all. Instead he continues to expect Tom to live the way he wishes, despite how unfair it is to her.
Worst of all, he leaves her! Yes, he leaves his 13-year old daughter at a trailer park full of strangers because he simply cannot be a part of any kind of society at all – even one as benign as the kind band of recluses. And that really pissed me off. (Yes, I know it’s a movie. I’m not Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown-ing you. What in the hell is that reference? More proof that I’m old! Also, was Dan the harbinger of doom? You say potato, Dan spells potatoe.) To find no relief in the minimal shelter in the woods and, much worse, to make no effort to even try and embrace the compromise made me hate Will.
At the end, they walk into the woods together one last time, exchange a tearful hug, and then head in opposite directions (literally and figuratively). Hello! This is your CHILD. This is not some girlfriend who you’ve reached the end of the road with, emotionally. This is your offspring that you have a responsibility to protect, above and beyond yourself. Will thinks he’s bucked the system, but he’s embraced it as much as any capitalist. He refuses to see beyond his own male entitlement, and there’s no escape from that, no matter how far you hike.