One of America's greatest filmmakers, Debra Granik finds her stories on the margins of a wealthy society. Her potent debut feature, Down to the Bone (2004), gave Vera Farmiga a breakout role as a working-class mom fighting cocaine addiction in upstate New York, her rocky personal situation aggravated by the family's nickeled-and-dimed existence. Granik's sophomore effort, Winter's Bone (2010), brought critical acclaim to TV actress Jennifer Lawrence for her flinty performance as an impoverished 17-year-old girl fending for herself and her younger siblings in the Ozarks. A sense of economic injustice colors both movies, yet their stories are small and intimate: years after seeing Down to the Bone, I can still recall the look on Farmiga's face when her character, given a reality check by a drug counselor, understands that her two young sons know exactly what she's doing when she locks herself in the bathroom.
Granik steps down the social ladder another rung with her third feature, Leave No Trace, the tale of a widowed, traumatized war veteran and his 13-year-old daughter living in a heavily forested public park near Portland, Oregon. A trained survivalist, Will (Ben Foster) knows how to evade trackers and live off the land, and young Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) doesn't mind their tenuous existence if she can stay with her dad. After police apprehend them, father and daughter are processed through social services and set up with a more stable work and living arrangement, but Will is so alienated from modern life that he can't function. Leave No Trace offers a stark commentary on homelessness and the terrible human cost of America's wars. What makes it a great and moving film, though, is the extraordinary connection between Will and Tom, who are as quiet and direct with each other in their isolation as the forest is with them.
Leave No Trace opens in the sunlit woods, the warm green tones in sympathy with Will and Tom's affection as they forage for food. They don't speak, but they hum in unison—"You Are My Sunshine," with its nature imagery and undercurrent of despair (You make me happy when skies are gray). At one point Granik stops to admire a large, perfect spiderweb, as beautiful and fragile as the father and daughter's life together. Their little camp includes a garden, a barbecue pit covered by a metal cooking rack, an umbrella whose concave side has been covered with aluminum foil to create a sun oven, a hung plastic sheet with a hole in the center to gather rainwater into a bucket below, and a pup tent that Will and Tom share at night, batting away dogs that come to investigate them. Later in the film, when a social worker tells Tom, "Your father needs to provide you with shelter and a place to live," the girl replies, "He did."
But all is not well in the forest. Tom, a growing girl, complains of hunger, and Will suffers from night terrors. When a combat dream wakes him, Tom tries to calm him by asking about her mother, whom she barely remembers. Will has been prescribed medication for post-traumatic stress disorder, which he and Tom hike into town to procure at a local health center, but when they return, Will sells the medication to another homeless vet who supervises a squatters' camp elsewhere in the vast park. Not long after Tom is spotted by a park worker—a development she conceals from Will—their chess game is interrupted by the distant barking of police dogs, and they bug out of their little campsite. Caught by the police, they face separation (Please don't take my sunshine away), but their social workers put together a deal with a local Christmas tree farmer to provide Will and Tom with a little house in exchange for Will's labor on the farm.
"It feels good to be by ourselves again," Tom says once they're alone together in the house, and Will admits, "It was hard not knowing what you were doing." As their new life takes shape, though, one realizes that Will and Tom's isolation from the rest of the world was the key to their intimacy. Tom enjoys their new living arrangement, especially when she meets a boy her age (Isaiah Stone) who invites her to the local 4-H Club meetings, but Will shies away from people, and when he's out on the farm harvesting pine trees, the roar of a helicopter overhead drops him to his knees in anguish. The conflict between father and daughter comes to a head when Tom arrives home late from a club meeting and suggests that she needs a cell phone so she can reach her dad. "We've always been able to communicate without all that," Will argues. Tom suggests that they try to adapt, but Will resists: "We're wearing their clothes, we're in their house, we're eating their food, we're doing their work. We have adapted. The only place we can't be seen is inside this house."
From Will's perspective, their life together is being ruined by possessions. The first breach between them comes when they're still camping in the park and Tom finds a little pendant someone has accidentally dropped on a trail; Will agrees to let her keep the pendant if it's still there an hour later, and though he gently admonishes her to leave it out in the open, she secretly nudges it into the dirt with her foot as they depart. Shopping for groceries, they evaluate every purchase with the question "Want or need?" When they're first installed in the house, Will hides the TV in the closet, and when Tom's social worker, Jean (Dana Millican), brings her a bicycle, Will tells the well-meaning woman, "We don't need more things." Jean also brings papers to enroll Tom in school, and when she mentions the DMV to Will, he seems to shrink from the thought of being burdened with an automobile.
Another spiderweb shows up later in the film, but this time the spider has departed and a few segments are missing from the web. Granik finds another striking natural metaphor in beekeeping, which Tom takes up as a hobby. Eager to show her father what she's learned, she outfits them both in beekeeping hoods, pulls a vertical drawer from the hive to reveal the clustering bees, and directs him to the open slot, explaining, "If you put your hand over it, you can feel the warmth of the hive." Now that Tom has felt that warmth herself as part of a community, she wants to stay put, but Will, she comes to realize, can never find peace in a group, and may never find it at all. Leave No Trace might be described in social terms as a film about homelessness, but it never loses sight of the fact that what makes a home is the privacy people need to connect with each other. v