Leave No Trace

Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik’s new film follows survivalist father Will & his 13 yr old daughter Tom. They live in a vibrant green forest national park outside Portland, in a makeshift camp. We follow them going about their tasks of preparing food, fixing the camp and growing provisions with efficiency and quiet expertise. They also run drills hide effectively from outsiders, but it seems a largely peaceful, sustainable existence. Will is an army veteran, with PTSD, and when they require some provisions, they venture into town where he can sell his medication to cover the costs.

When Tom is spotted by a runner, the police are called in and the pair are taken into custody. But here Leave No Trace is at variance from similar movies – the services are portrayed as sympathetic and helpful. They are relocated to a nice cottage on some supportive man’s farm in return for working on his Christmas tree plantation. You can’t help feeling that this seems a pretty sweet deal. Here they go to church and Will informs his daughter that “if you turn up people will believe certain things about you”. He is not going in for rebel histrionics, he’s playing along and biding his time before he can live his life. But for Tom she is beginning to find her own connections & her views may not coincide with her father’s. At the edges of society there is less leeway for these differences – you’re either all in or not. There ain’t no such thing as halfway survivalist to paraphrase Mobb Deep.

When they go on the run again, their bucolic existence is less idyllic, with more hardship this time around. But again they find aid in a trailer community in Washington. Everyone is helpful & kind, which is a refreshing contrast from the unrelenting grimness of most post-recession US movies. But at the same time the overwhelming whiteness of all the support is noticeable – you can’t help wondering if Will & Tom would receive less of a welcome if they weren’t white. I also suspect that survivalist anti-vaxxer communities are not as reasonable as this in reality.

But overall, it’s a touching, reserved film full of tenderness. For Will he is seeking a life where he is “free to think his own thoughts”. Maybe that’s true of all of us in different ways – for Will it’s obscurity in the forest, for others it’s retirement with a static caravan in Weston Super Mare. But it’s a life carved into something resembling your own.

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