Leave No Trace functions in part as a less comedic version of Captain Fantastic, another film about a quietly domineering father forcing his offspring to live according to his misanthropic philosophy. Both Will and the father of Captain Fantastic reject entrusting the education of their children to anyone other than themselves, and they’re both shown to be good teachers, but education reinforces curiosity and skepticism, the death knell of any strident value system. I’ve long credited a chunk of my atheism to a religious household’s banning of otherwise benign cultural products like The Simpsons. A god that could be against something so great is no god worth following. In Leave No Trace, being ejected from the park puts an accelerant under Tom’s nascent skepticism. Granik casts small roles with actors capable of great warmth and kindness, such that Will can only look cruel and foolish when he drags Tom away from them in search of a new isolated frontier.
‘Drags’ is a strong word, because despite casting the oft-volcanic Foster as Will, he never raises his voice to his daughter. If he wasn’t a good father, Tom wouldn’t have turned out as good as she has, but the sell-by date of keeping her in the lifestyle that he needs is fast approaching. Why he needs to live this way is subtly spelled out in his VA prescriptions and his regimented preparedness in the camp. His PTSD isn’t of the thrashing, drunken, dangerous variety, but instead manifests in slight tremors and intense concentration, likely focused on preventing the aforementioned outbursts. PTSD has rarely been portrayed as a crueler disorder, something that is impossible to work through alone but with symptoms that provoke isolation. As Leave No Trace takes place in the West, Will’s standoffishness could easily be hand-waved away as libertarian stoicism, strength as loneliness and a refusal to ask for help. Such an ethic has powered plenty of Western heroes and cigarette brands to prominence, but Leave No Trace frames this as illness and a surefire route to dying alone in a ditch.
While the film has deep sympathy for Will and wants him to get help, it has no patience for any kind of rejection of humanity in exchange for nature. Like in calmer moments of Winter’s Bone, Granik has deep respect for folk customs and aesthetics. In Winter’s Bone, this manifested in a throwaway scene of a family playing music in their living room, grandchildren on guitar and grandma singing bluegrass in a tableau so potent, it’s making me tear up as I write this sentence. Leave No Trace returns to vignettes like this as Will and Tom make their way to an RV camp led by the inimitable Dale Dickey, as kind here as she was fearsome in Winter’s Bone. Granik’s slow-moving camera moves through the camp with Tom as she takes in people that aren’t living lives so different from hers and her father’s in the park, but they get the added benefits of a porchside violin and conversation with the neighbors, a win-win for her but still not what can fit into Will’s narrow demands.
One of those neighbors is a beekeeper, and she shows Tom her hives in an apt metaphor for the film. The hive is unquestionably dangerous, but for it to be so requires unpredictability on the agitator and death for the attacking bee, a lose-lose proposition. If one can get familiar with the hive, though, not only can one admire the sustaining heat it generates, but they can form a symbiotic relationship, giving and receiving while a deadly force is subverted. This is contrasted with repeated instances of Will shaking Tom awake before dawn, telling her to pack what she can and be ready to leave in a few minutes. The disorientation rattles Tom, not only for the suddenness of it, but because it’s the severing of alternate pathways. Maybe she and the nice long-haired boy with the rabbit could have been friends, if not more than friends. Maybe she could’ve broken down the defenses of the gruff owner of the tree farm and he could be a mentor. Instead, there’s only two bees without a hive, abandoning warmth for the cold of the forest. Leave No Trace belongs next to pleasant 2018 films like Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Paddington 2 in how it so effortlessly demonstrates the value of community, and how it’s a thing worth working towards. That’s such a beautiful feeling to leave with the viewer, and another eight years can’t elapse before Granik gets to evoke it again. A-