Leave No Trace follows the story of Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Mackenzie), a father and daughter who live a happy but mysterious life in Forest Park, a beautiful nature reserve near Portland, Ore. Rarely making contact with the world, Will and Tom care for and support one another. When a small mistake tips them off to authorities, their world is thrown upside down as they embark on a quest to rebuild a home of their own.
Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, Trace provides the viewer with a quietly profound piece which leaves the viewer with reflective pause. Powerful yet subtle, the performances by Foster and Mackenzie provide the backbone for what becomes an intensely emotional drama. (Foster especially pops off the screen by giving Will a repressed but seething angst in his performance.)
One of the most powerful aspects of the film is its exploration of what it means to truly have a home through its highlighting of humanity’s desire for safety and security. Though they spend most of their time in the wild, Will and Tom have built a home for themselves that provides emotional stability and safety. While unorthodox, their lives of exclusivity somehow feel like a shelter from the perceived harshness of the world around them. Although they live in the middle of nowhere, they have not only made a shelter. They have created a home.
However, feelings of safety can give way to fear and anxiety when that security is threatened or changed. As a father, Will’s desire is to protect Tom from the outside world. But as Tom’s heart begins to realize that relationships with others can be healthy, her perceptions of home begin to shift. As a result, tensions develop between father and daughter, not out of lack of love but out of conflict of worldview. Suddenly, Tom’s view of healthy community has expanded, accusing her father of limiting them. As a result, because Will desperately wants things to be as they once were, their family relationships have changed irrevocably. Tom’s eyes have been opened to something bigger. As fear and anxiety begin to creep in, safety begins to erode and the two must ask themselves what home looks like for them as they move forward.
In many ways, Trace is a testament to our ability to build community, regardless of circumstances. In every situation, it’s our human tendency to attempt to create more than just a place where we’re protected from the weather but rather somewhere that offers emotional and spiritual support. We don’t just want to live. We want to experience life together. Though there are many who yearn for solitude, we as a people thrive most fully when we are part of a vibrant community, regardless of its structure. Though pop culture most often points us to romantic relationships, Trace reminds us that real love begins when we are present with one another in authentic community.
In the end, Leave No Trace is a powerful film that finds a unique balance between haunting and hopeful. Through its exploration of community, Trace reminds us that ‘it’s not good for [anyone] to be alone’ while allowing for individual expressions of relationships at the same time.