Debra Granik’s films are a fine depiction of an America rarely seen in Hollywood. Her 2018 production Leave No Trace, for instance. follows a father-and-daughter pair living off the grid in an urban forest reserve.
Will (Ben Foster) is a widower and war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has trained Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in the art of surviving away from creature comforts. Will ensures that Tom is literate and proficient in chess, in addition to knowing how to make the best of nature’s bounty.
It’s not idyllic. Tom is growing up fast. Will has nightmares. They are always under threat of being spotted. When they are, and are forced by well-meaning social workers into reintegrating with a world that they have thus far successfully shunned, their lives are turned upside down.
Leave No Trace is available to Netflix subscribers. The movie can also be rented from Apple TV+, Prime Video and Google Play Movies.
Based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, Leave My Trace is shorn of the short-cuts or moralising we might expect from movies about sudden ruptures. Tom’s experience of her newfound surroundings is a mixed bag – she yearns for social contact but is mature enough to know that conventional living isn’t all it is made out to be.
Will’s job at a farm where trees are grown for Christmas is a cruel irony, considering the actual greenery he has left behind. When Will is asked to take a psychological assessment test, the wallpaper behind him is of the very forest where he was living contentedly not too long ago.
The movie quietly questions the meaning of normalcy, the long-standing damage caused by America’s participation in wars and the correct methods of parenting. The beautifully observed relationship between Will and Tom is not dissimilar to that between animals in the wild. At some point, a mother lets go of her cub. For Will, who is both mother and father to Tom, this necessary break is tough to accept.
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie turn out remarkably subtle performances that are in keeping with Granik’s observational style. Granik’s sensitivity lets us into a way of living triggered by a mental crisis and nurtured by the knowledge that nature sometimes has the answers that human intellect doesn’t. The sound design is lovely too, minimal and at its most expressive in the tongue clicks that Will and Tom use to signal each other.