Leave No Trace.

Leave no Trace

Debra Granik’s haunting drama makes other living-off-the-grid films feel like pretenders. A fearless moral puzzle, this is an open-eyed story of a veteran raising his daughter in the woods of a state park, guerrilla-technique and living off the land style.

We meet Will and young Tom in their makeshift home, cooking their trappings and reading books under the tarp that protects them. Their dynamic, even if their environment is not, is very relatable. Tom respects her father, even if she sometimes gets a little annoyed at his stubbornness. And Will clearly takes his job of raising Tom seriously, even if he has chosen, for whatever reasons, to do it the way he has. We get enough particulars to see how they make this life work for them and can’t help but be dubiously impressed. So, soon, when the two are discovered, separated and taken into custody, we are genuinely shaken. After all, we are told, very few parents actually come back for their kids.

But Will concedes, tries, for Tom’s sake, to live a more traditional life. And Tom, seeing some of what else life has to offer, begins to emerge as a separate, strong young woman. When Will eventually gets into trouble, she is the one who makes the decisions. And we find ourselves hoping she will also make a decision we sadly think is right.

What distinguishes this film is its no BS take. There is detail, but no romantic vision, of this kind of life, or of the possible ways out. While it is told beautifully, this is not a beautiful picture.

Thomasin McKenzie gives the kind of smashing debut here Jennifer Lawrence delivered in Granik’s other stunner, Winter’s Bone. And Ben Foster, a fine actor, gives his most understated and devastating performance to date, as a decent man who tries but may not be able to shake his past. This is a love story that should break every heart that sees it. And I hope many will.