Rating: 3.5 stars
In the opening moments of “Leave No Trace,” we watch as a man and his 13-year-old daughter wordlessly go about their lives as squatters in the middle of Forest Park, a 5,200-acre tract of public woods just west of downtown Portland, Ore. The unorthodox homeyness of their carefully hidden campsite, coupled with a display of well-rehearsed survival skills and the idyllic natural beauty of the scene, conjures up memories of “Captain Fantastic,” the 2016 dramatic comedy starring Viggo Mortensen as a survivalist father raising a brood of six eccentric kids in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
But those Arcadian images quickly dissipate, like morning fog burning off under the glare of a pitiless sun, in this intense and bittersweet tale of what it means to be broken and whole. Written and directed by Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”), the film is based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment,” which was itself inspired by a series of 2004 reports in the Oregonian of a father and daughter who were discovered to have been living, undetected, in Forest Park for four years.
In short order, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), have been picked up by the authorities, revealing the fractured nature of Will’s grip on sanity — a malaise made all the more poignant by the tenacity of his loving bond with his daughter.
A widowed veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Will can no longer abide human society, it seems, rejecting the transitional housing in which he and Tom are placed by social services. Almost as soon as they have been removed from their off-the-grid lifestyle, attempting to settle in with a Christmas tree farmer who has a spare apartment, they quietly return to Will’s rootless life on the road.
The problem here is that Tom, having briefly sampled a taste of stability, doesn’t necessarily want to slip back into the alienation that has, ironically, given her father solace. “The same thing that’s wrong with you,” she tells Will firmly, “isn’t wrong with me.” That tension underscores and heightens everything in “Leave No Trace,” which questions the very meaning of home and homelessness, connection and solitude. On another level, it’s a coming-of-age tale that uses Tom’s unwillingness to assimilate Will’s dysfunction as a metaphor, albeit an extreme one, for the separation that comes with growing up.
Whatever its underlying message may be, the film works only to the degree that its central relationship does. Foster and McKenzie are almost symbiotic here, with the young actress, a native of New Zealand, delivering a startlingly confident performance that is, by every measure, the equal of Foster’s. Where Will is tormented, Tom is strong and brave — a wild child tempered by a discipline that, however misguided, is based on the spirit of self-reliance.
“Leave No Trace” is not a sociological treatise. It has nothing grandiose to say about homelessness or PTSD. It does, however, deliver an effective (and deeply affecting) allegory of the inevitable leave-taking that all of us — housed or unhoused, happy or half mad — must undergo with our loved ones.
PG. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material. 109 minutes.