Tolstoy's observation that all happy families are alike gets overturned in Leave No Trace.
The movie is based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, itself drawn from a news accounts in the Portland Oregonian of an Oregon man found living in a public forest with his teen daughter. They'd been on their own for at least four years, and though the girl was technically homeless, she'd been home-schooled, and tested ahead of children her age. She was clean, clothed, loved her father, and wanted to stay with him. Stumped Oregon authorities were left trying to figure away to protect the girl's interests while ensuring that the family lived within the law.
Leave No Trace preserves and expands on this story, brought compellingly to life by Ben Foster as the father, Will, and New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie as his daughter, Tom.
Longtime supporting player/character actor Foster is known for bringing a compact, piercing intensity to roles such as the outlaw brother in Hell Or High Water, and does the same here, playing a veteran with PTSD and a profound sense of his responsibilities as a father.
The two elements are sometimes in conflict, sometimes in strange symbiosis. For Will, being a vigilant and effective father is his latest and most important mission, and he brings a military discipline to his parenting. Tom learns and observes rigid but sensible rules; Will drills his daughter in the art of concealment. Operational security becomes family unit security.
We see that it works for both of them. Tom is the most important thing in dad's life, and she feels this every moment. We see that fatherhood gives Tom focus and purpose, keeps him moving forward.
Still, Tom watches her father warily – this is instinct, and training. Her father has taught her to be alert to danger, and she watches her father the way she watches the outside world, attuned to the possibility of a developing threat (Tom's quiet watchfulness limits McKenzie's emotional arc, but she makes up that in intensity).
All is disrupted when they are apprehended and processed by state officials – and, importantly, separated for the first time. At this juncture, there are exceptional scenes involving Will, who must answer questions about his mental state, and knows that if he answers them truthfully, he may never see Tom again (echoes of the Miles Teller scenes in Thank You for Your Service).
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Or perhaps he's rattled by other questions, unasked: What is his mission when Tom is old enough not to need him anymore? He's taught her to live off the grid. What if he is the grid? What if all parents are?
Leave No Trace retains as sense of real-world gravity. It's snapshot of Will's brief interactions with the VA; his networking with other homeless vets feels as insightful and informative as a much longer look at the subject. The veterans here are often part of larger, rural communities — a specialty for director Debra Granik, who's Winter's Bone brought Appalachia vividly to life.
Leave No Trace, is less story-driven than Winter's Bone (which made a star of Jennifer Lawrence), more lyrical, more attuned to the melancholy of the novel and its quiet portrait of a young woman caught between dependence and independence, love and fear.