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Leave No Trace

Posted on the 03 March 2019 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
Leave No Trace
There is a sense in Granik's Winter's Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, that Jennifer Lawrence's Ree exists in isolation of institutions that should help her. The sense of this is increased by the fact that Winter's Bone, even though the film less so than the novel, seems to exist outside the bounds of time and space - if you read the novel, it uses language that seems to come straight from ancient myths, an Appalachian version of a Greek hero struggling not with the ways that the Gods toy with the fates of mere humans, but with the impossibility of navigating parental abandonment and poverty. 
Leave No Trace is based on a novel as well, Peter Rock's My Abandonment. In its central theme and characters, it is the opposite of Winter's Bone. Where Ree was desperately attempting to navigate life after the death of her father, trying to find the resources to take care of herself, her mother and her siblings, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster) are a tightly knit unit of daughter and father, dependent on each other, surviving on their own in a National Park near Portland, Oregon. The film doesn't use flashbacks to explain their past, or how Will has come to this point where he is raising his daughter out in the wild, but it is clear from their interactions how much they care for each other, how much this relationship that from the outside, and once discovered by authorities, appears so fragile and filled with dangerous potential, is nourishing and functional within the bounds that it operates in. They gather food, they build contraptions, they are, apart from occasional trips into the city, self-sufficient. Will has taught Tom everything that she knows. 
The situation changes radically when due to an error that Tom makes, their camp is discovered and they become involved with a bureaucracy that doesn't allow them to live this way. It's not so much that they are homeless - it's the fact that living on public land is illegal. Leave No Trace takes a lot of care to not paint the social workers tasked with caring for them as evil, or prejudiced. Instead they show a lot of care and understanding once they rule out that Tom is in any way neglected, or abused, and they try to find a solution that suits Will's inability to live within the confines of society. Tenderly, the film hints at trauma that he sustained when he served, but it also shows how Will has managed to deal with that trauma in a way that doesn't affect Tom beyond the way that they are living. Their interactions are never aggressive, their conflicts are never violent. Once of the quiet accomplishments that the film makes is showing Tom as a girl who is confident in her actions and decisions exactly because of how Will has raised her - having to use logic and reason to make her points, but never punishing her for errors, instead trusting that she will learn from them, even when they lead into what is for him an unbearable situation. 
Regardless of the tenderness and closeness of their relationship, the break has to inevitably happen, if only because Tom is growing into her own person, with her own goals and dreams. While Will finds it impossible to adapt to a life within any sort of community, in a house, with a job, with the trappings of modern life (running water, a television he quickly hides in a closet, a roof over his head which to him is constricting, not a luxury), Tom thrives once she interacts with other people and sees that there are other ways of living. She also realises that as much as her father has prepared her for a life in the wild, and given her incredible resources for that particular life, she is still ill-equipped to handle this other life she is now exposed to. For one, it teaches her that other people are gentle and kind as well. She tries to resist when her father decides that they have to leave, and realises that there are limits to how much they can depend on each other when in his panic, he takes them into a new place that he isn't familiar with, threatening both their lives in the process. To Tom, a different life is possible, while Will is incapable of living among other people. In the end, she becomes the carer - when Will injures himself, she gathers the help they need, and relocates them in a community that is driven by an ethos of mutual support and help. Tom realises that this is a good life, but Will can't share that life with her - and in the end, their tragic separation is inevitable, as their paths diverge. 
Leave No Trace is a beautiful, gentle film, that takes a lot of time exploring the relationship between Will and Tom, to make that moment in the end all the more meaningful when Tom has grown enough to imagine a life separate from her father and when Will has grown enough to realize that his daughter cannot share his life forever.

2018, directed by Debra Granik, starring Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster. 

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