In the primitives-meet-civilization formula, outsiders are rescued from the wild, and assimilated into society; the world teaches them, and, in a more profound way, the savages edify the world. Fish out of water scenes abound: struggles with tax returns and Tinder, lessons about curfews and selfies.
Leave No Trace does not hue to this structure. Father and daughter, Will and Tom, are rescued from the wild; or, more accurately, they are forcibly relocated from their homely camp in a national park to a bungalow on a farm that produces Christmas trees. We see some adjustments to normal life – Tom makes friends, Will goes to work – but the film is less interested in the contrasts between wilderness and society than in the continuity Will and Tom find all around them.
Director Debra Granik connects the family’s nomadic existence with a living network of Americans surviving outside the nine-to-five: squatters, truck drivers and other itinerant workers, isolated cabins, and trailer communities. Some of those who choose to live outside the state are survivalists or doomsdayers, white supremacists or cranks. Not all. Many just see through the bogus promise of life inside the system. After all, the wilderness liberates you from your boss, as well as the tax man.
There’s a cruel irony to Will’s own homespun libertarianism. After the family are forced into a more typical living arrangement, his comforting refrain to his daughter is: ‘we can still think our own thoughts’. But it’s Will’s thoughts that are the problem. After a tour in the army, nightmares haunt his sleep, and he’s weighed down by intrusive thoughts. In an ominous early scene, Tom lingers at a stall for veterans. She picks up a piece of plastic, and the man behind the desk explains that it’s a safety device for a gun, ‘in case the vet is going to harm someone… or commit something even worse’. Later she looks at a newspaper clipping from her dad’s file. The headline reads, ‘A Battalion Stalked by Suicide.’ Civilized America is unable to provide the complex help for someone suffering PTSD and raising a child alone. For Will, nature, constant movement and solitude are the only palliatives.
Tom is stoic, loving, occasionally wise, and occasionally brittle. The central questions of Leave No Trace – it’s an inquisitive, probing film – are as much about her autonomy as they are about trauma, family, home, the role of the state and the advantages of community. The ending – quietly devastating – provides no firm answers.