Using almost no music and very little dialog, Debra Granik visits a few life-changing weeks in the lives of a father and daughter. Ben Foster plays Will, the war-damaged father. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie plays his almost grown daughter Tom.
Everything about the film’s direction contains a delicate, intimate touch. Granik opens with Will and Tom in a quiet camp in the forest. We hear water, wind, the crack of an ax. It’s a fern-filled Eden where they have everything they need. From the way they work together and their sparse conversation, we know they’ve lived like this for years.
Their camp is discovered. It’s in the park outside Portland, Oregon, where camping is not permitted. The police and welfare arms of the government take hold of them. They’re plucked from the forest and put in a house.
Will can’t take the noise, the people, the confinement of normal life. Even though he tells Tom, “We can still think our own thoughts,” he feels caged. They run. When Will is hurt, people living in a small cluster of RVs deep in the woods help them. Even that is too confining for Will.
Living inside and around people changes Tom. She sees how other people live. She likes people, she’s curious about their pursuits, she wants friends. She’s direct. What her father needs is not what she needs. “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
When Will must leave to be alone in the forest again, Tom balks. The final moments between them are set in the forest surrounded by the silence and peace that opened the film. There’s deep understanding between them, but also heartbreak. Tom is upright, proud, a woman now. Will lets go, suddenly, in one motion.
The eloquent silence of Granik’s Leave No Trace creates a masterful portrait of a father’s love and a daughter’s coming of age. Every word and gesture in Leave No Trace rings true.