“Leave No Trace” is a quiet story, quietly told, with a classic American theme: What happens to people who are not comfortable in traditional arrangements? The movie is short on overt conflict but gets its message across with the actions of its actors. It is sincere. It feels like truth.
The main characters are a military veteran, Will (Ben Foster), and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), who have lived an isolated, self-sufficient and respectful existence for years in Forest Park, eight square miles of undeveloped forest on the edge of Portland, Oregon.
One day they are discovered and “rescued” by police and social workers who mean well and want to help. Will and Tom are relocated to a Christmas tree farm, a rural environment that is halfway between a forest and a city.
Teenaged Tom meets classmates in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, and she seems to be finding her way. But Will, who does not complain and who does as he is asked, is less at ease. They light out again for the wilderness.
There are general hints about how Will came to prefer life in isolation and about the loss of Tom’s mother, but these are not explained. We observe these two characters as they are. What is remarkable is how plainly this is conveyed by two fine actors with a minimalist screenplay that respects them and their situation. The pacing is slow by current standards, but it works.
The director/producers/screenwriters are Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, who made 2010’s remarkable “Winter’s Bone,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and four Oscar nominations but only sold $16 million in tickets.
“Leave No Trace” is trending nicely, grossing $4 million last weekend, but is unlikely to find a big audience with an American movie-going public whose favorites in the same period were a little-loved vigilante sequel and a second Mama Mia story based on Abba songs from the 1970s.
I’m grateful for occasional alternatives like these.
“Leave No Trace” gets its story from a novel, “My Abandonment” by Portland writer Peter Rock, which itself is derived from an actual event. In 2004, a college-educated Vietnam vet and his home-schooled 13-year-old daughter were found and offered shelter after living four years in Portland’s Forest Park.
For a number of years, I hiked in another Western forest that was a refuge for people displaced generations earlier during the Great Depression, when unemployment reached 25 percent and stayed there for years.
Those people, like Will and Tom in the movie, were self-sufficient in ways that are no longer common. They knew how to hunt and fish. They were comfortable raising plants. They could identify edible mushrooms and berries. They cooked their food over fires without setting themselves or the forest ablaze.
We are more competent now in the digital world, but if the electric grid succumbs to sabotage, we will have a hard time taking care of ourselves.
North America was settled by people who were dissatisfied enough to cross oceans and deserts in search of something better. (Yes, for African slaves the transit was involuntary.) As the country grew, many newcomers weren’t interested in settling in or near established cities of the eastern seaboard; they headed west to homestead or to pan for gold or to settle in newer towns or settlements. As a result, perhaps, Americans are less suspicious of newcomers or restless souls than people who live in more traditional cultures.
My mother’s father, whom I never met, came from people who arrived in Massachusetts 10 years after the Mayflower. After many generations, his family relocated to Illinois. When my grandfather met my grandmother, he and his brother were homesteading in Canada’s Northwest Territories and spending their winters in the (only relatively) warmer Rocky Mountain hillsides of north Idaho and western Montana. My grandmother’s Irish immigrant family had chased mining jobs from Pennsylvania to Colorado to Butte to the Coeur d’Alenes.
Even today, if you talk to people who have lived in our last frontier, Alaska, you will hear about iconoclasts who don’t quite fit anywhere else. Their personalities range from refreshing to rather difficult, but they are recognizable American types.