Will is the embodiment of a doting dad, and a “good provider” boiled down to that phrase’s essential meaning.
He spends all day, every day with daughter Tom. He keeps her clothed, healthy, warm and fed, home schools her and augments that education with every step they take through the woods of Oregon. Eat these greens, harvest those mushrooms.
You don’t need a stove or even a fire. Here’s how you use a solar oven. This is how you prep fire-starter for use with a flint and a knife.
And Tom (Thomasin McKenzie)? She’s a pale, fresh-faced teen, curious, questioning, smart and none the worse for wear. You could never tell she’s homeless, that they make their lives on national park land.
Will (Ben Foster) is quiet but antic, gets a bit too worked-up over starting a fire the most primitive way available and flinches at helicopters. He only succumbs to civilization when he needs his VA check and prescriptions. Other encounters? To be avoided.
“DRILL,” he whispers, with all the urgency he can muster. Cover your tracks, “Do it well,” he says. “Leave no trace.”
“Leave No Trace” is another girl-comes-of-age-under-extreme-duress drama from director Debra Granik, another “Winter’s Bone” set in an unconventional family tested in an alien world. “Trace,” based on Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment,” lacks the existential threat, the violence and Meth Belt desperation of “Winter’s Bone,” but you can see in Granik an “artist pounding the same nail over and over again,” here.
Young female protagonist, wise in unconventional ways, tougher than she looks, out to save her daddy, if he can be saved.
The always-present threat is “discovery.” The implied threat beyond that is “They’ll separate us.” But while we may question the efficacy of Will’s drills and just what value his teachings have for a girl in our real world, we know Tom wasn’t raised to be passive and unquestioning.
That’s obvious the moment they’re caught by cops with a tracking dog. “Cooperate,” Dad says. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“We need to find out what’s going on here,” a female officer tells a perplexed Tom.
“You needed a dog to figure that out?”
“The System” takes them in, quizzes each about possible criminal leanings, abuse, general cognizance and mental health queries. But a kindly social worker (Dana Millican) suggests sympathy for their situation, and a firm hand.
“We didn’t need to be rescued” cuts no ice with her.
But all this “help” — temporary housing, monitoring, temporary work, school, clothes, a bike, a phone — makes Will seethe, and hope his daughter sees why.
“You can still think your own thoughts.”
This world, hemmed in by a roof over your head, trapped in a job (Christmas tree farming), “paperwork,” rules, isn’t for him. Tom? Maybe it’s melodramatic, but meeting your first boy (he as a pet bunny), getting your first bike, connecting socially with kids your own age at school or in 4H, being clean and warm and well-fed creates a schism, their first.
“Maybe we should adapt.”
Most summer movies are imposed on us, but a few require us to seek them out and approach them on their own challenging terms.
“Leave No Trace” has a “Sullivan’s Travels” righteousness to the world it presents. Kindness and generosity greets them at every turn. Their fellow homeless vets leave them be and buy Will’s drugs, social workers, a farmer, a truck driver, VA employees and the working poor (the great Dale Dickey of “Winter’s Bone”) all sympathize with their plight, ask few questions and respect “the way you guys are living” — off the grid.
Foster’s sensitive side has turned up in a few films, “The Messenger” for instance. But the “Hell or High Water” dangerous, man-of-violence side as dominated his resume and creates baggage for this role that helps the film. Will seems broken, passive resistance is all he has left. But we wonder.
McKenzie, a New Zealand actress who cut started making her mark on the last “Hobbit” movie, has a potential break-out role here, and it’s only the memory of “Winter’s Bone” that puts a damper on that. She brings wonder to new experiences — the woods, peers, bunnies, bee-keeping. But while we could believe rawboned Jennifer Lawrence as a tough, resilient and desperate Ozarks teen, McKenzie doesn’t look like she’s seen the sun, much less roughed it out of range of a hair dryer. She evokes the intelligence and sad understanding of Tom’s broadening horizons, plays the “fish out of water” well, but she gives us doubt and lets us see the actress behind the performance, the young woman who doesn’t fit in this milieu.
Still, “Trace” works because even if this film avoids the classic “disturbed vet” story cliches, that this situation is untenable, dangerous and limiting.
The marvel of “Leave No Trace” is that we continue watching, utterly absorbed, to see if Tom will figure that out as well.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material throughout
Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster, Dana Millican, Dale Dickey, Jeff Kober
Credits: Directed by Debra Granick, script by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granick, based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 1:49