A father and daughter live a perfect but mysterious existence in Forest Park, a beautiful nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, rarely making contact with the world. But when a small mistake tips them off to authorities, they are sent on an increasingly erratic journey in search of a place to call their own.
ActorsStarring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Alyssa Lynn, Ryan Joiner, Ayanna Berkshire, Jeffery Rifflard, Michael Draper, Derek John Drescher, Peter Simpson, Erik McGlothlin, Michael J. Prosser, Spencer S. Hanley, Tamera Westlake, Bob Werfelman, Isaiah Stone, Jacob Johnson, Art Hickman, Derek Carmon, Zoë Dotson, David Pittman, Susan Chernik, Marisa Anderson, Michael Hurley
We meet Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) as they are camping in a park near Portland, Oregon. They are both clearly comfortable in the woods, and also with each other. They forage for food, make campfires, and practice drills to keep out of sight of prying eyes. As viewers, we soon figure out that they are not on a camping trip – this is in fact where and how they live.
They do so by choice – Will is a veteran who suffers from ever more crippling PTSD and cannot live the ‘normal’ life. They are therefore not homeless, but as they fear the authorities will disagree, their camp is hidden in the forest and Will continues to teach Tom how to Leave No Trace. As a teenager, Tom of course still has a big world to discover, and one day someone spots her in the woods. It doesn’t take long before the authorities track them down and take them in – as they are ‘unhoused’, they indeed get that well-intended help to find a roof over their heads. The door to the larger world is now ajar for Tom, whilst Will struggles to adapt and sees no alternative but to find his way back to their days and ways in the woods.
Leave No Trace is a low-key yet very powerful movie. There are some big themes at play – family bonds and a coming of age tale; being one with nature; the impact of veterans’ mental health on themselves, their families and society; and how society and authorities lack the ability to help or even handle those who (choose) live on the fringe, to name a few. These are all gradually introduced without any fanfare, and as viewer you have plenty of options of what to ponder. Ben Foster is compelling as Will – understated, understanding, selfish, loving, protective, not giving up, yet a victim, always in pain. Kiwi newcomer Thomasin McKenzie is fantastic as Tom – lifelike, understanding, curious, yet not willing to become a victim too, growing up.
Leave No Trace does not live up to its title – it definitely makes its mark. Recommended.