Growing up’s hard when you’re dad’s last link to society

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Leave No Trace
RPL Film Theatre

Sept. 7–9

American cinema lies about poverty. In Hollywood movies, destitution is an obstacle to be overcome by determination. Homelessness is poor people’s natural state, says Hollywood, and those who use social services are lazy. Let’s not even get into how middle class folk all have massive houses in the suburbs.

This is changing thanks to independent filmmakers (and presumably, a massive rise in actual poverty among Americans that makes the lie hard to sell). Eight years ago, director Debra Granik showed her peers the path with the superb Winter’s Bone. Now she’s back with Leave No Trace, another harrowing tale of life on the edge of society.

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) have lived off the grid for years in the forests near Portland. Despite their situation’s precariousness they’ve made it work: Tom is well taken care of and better educated than most kids her age.

Only when they’re discovered by authorities do their challenges come into focus. Will, a war veteran, has severe PTSD and feels incapable of rejoining society. Tom is happy to go back to the woods with him but after a taste of stability she realizes their live-off-the-land existence is unsustainable.

Never mind that most of the movie takes place outdoors, Leave No Trace is the most intimate of dramas. The relationship between Will and Tom is so rich and textured it sustains the film by itself. Newcomer McKenzie makes quite an impression as the plot moves forward, mostly in her head, and we get to see it happening.

The question of “child abuse” is going to pop up. Is Will a monster? The answer is murky. Tom is put through the wringer, but her father loves her and is actively concerned about her well-being. Leave No Trace also questions the value of socialization: if you’re not getting anything from other people, is there a point to living among them? Leave No Trace doesn’t have any clear-cut answers, but it keeps you watching — and thinking.