As a general rule, aspiring parents should probably avoid the work of Philip Larkin, the late “Bard of Coventry.” His poem “This Be the Verse” famously opens with these inspiring lines: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.” But even if Larkin had a gloomy outlook on parenthood—a club that he, unsurprisingly, chose never to join—he should at least get credit for recognizing one of its more daunting challenges: How do we shield our children from our own flaws?
The question looms throughout Leave No Trace, a new film by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), starring Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie.
Will (Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (McKenzie), are living illegally in the semi-wilderness of Forest Park in Portland, Oregon. They cook mushrooms, harvest rainwater, and at first appear to be faring pretty well in their ferny seclusion. The sylvan idyll quickly begins to fade, however. Twice within the opening minutes of the film, we hear Tom exclaim that she’s hungry; a diet of wild fungus, it turns out, is not sufficient to sate the adolescent appetite. We also learn that Will is a veteran who suffers recurring nightmares and collects benefits from the VA. So that’s how the aspiring forest dwellers get their food. Self-reliance isn’t always what it seems.
Soon enough, the jig is up. Will and Tom are arrested and made to take aptitude tests and undergo psychological evaluations. While social services is skeptical at first, it soon becomes evident that Will is not a danger to society or to his daughter. On the contrary, thanks to his tutelage, Tom’s reading level is, rather implausibly, “ahead of where she needs to be.” Eventually, Will and Tom are given a place to live and Will gets a job working on a Christmas tree farm. Tom befriends a local boy who is building his own tiny house and has a pet rabbit named Chainsaw. Things appear to be going well.
Or not. Indeed, once father and daughter rejoin society, the film’s primary dilemma emerges: While Tom quickly takes to a less feral existence, her father has a much harder time adjusting. Will does what he can to eschew the more corrosive influences of modern life, like by refusing to get a cellphone and stashing the TV in a closet, but there’s no doubt that his soul is troubled.
“We can still think our own thoughts,” Will tells his daughter when she expresses an initial skepticism about their new digs. How reassuring.
On the one hand, Leave No Trace covers familiar territory on the subject of raising kids in our age of turbo-digitalization. The film doesn’t push too hard on this, but it does enough to suggest that living off the grid has its advantages. In one scene, Tom watches in disbelief as one of her contemporaries grins idiotically at his phone while taking selfies.
One might be tempted to draw a parallel to 2016’s Captain Fantastic, in which Viggo Mortensen plays a woodland renaissance man rearing a troupe of Chomsky-reading mini Tarzans. There was something refreshingly preposterous about this concept, but it also made it difficult to take the movie seriously when it wanted us to. Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about Captain Fantastic was the way it eventually betrayed its own weirdness by veering toward predictability. Of course the oldest son, when he’s not filleting a deer he’s just slain with his bare hands, is secretly applying and being accepted to all the Ivy League schools. What did you expect? Arizona State?
Leave No Trace doesn’t fall into the same trap of needing to present Tom as a child genius come in from the woods. McKenzie is convincing in her portrayal of a character who, against all odds, seems like a well-adjusted, normal teenager, albeit one who has had to shoulder a greater burden than most of her peers. Her father, meanwhile, is as far from the preternaturally self-assured Captain Fantastic as can be.
“What if the kids at school think I’m strange because of the way we were living?” Tom asks her father.
“How important are their judgments?” he snaps back.
“I guess I’ll find out,” she replies.
But Tom’s eventual reintegration never seems in doubt. The deeper mystery at the heart of the Leave No Trace is the source of her father’s psychological estrangement. Will remains an enigma until the end. We assume that he is suffering from PTSD, but the film stubbornly refuses to answer questions about what happened to him or why he decided to raise his daughter among the pines. (Tom’s mother is only briefly alluded to; we don’t find out much about her.)
Rather than Captain Fantastic, the themes of Leave No Trace are perhaps more clearly echoed in Sebastian Junger’s recent book Tribe, in which he lays out his theory for why so many American vets feel alienated when they return from war. “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it,” Junger writes. He adds elsewhere, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
The principal hypothesis is that, for all of its horror, the experience of war can give soldiers a sense of purpose and community that is hard to find in contemporary civilian life. Without it, some become dangerously unmoored. In Leave No Trace, Will’s purpose is his daughter, and one suspects that the subconscious reason he chooses to impose hardship on the two of them is to make himself feel necessary. The irony is that in seeking to tend to his own psychic wounds by doing what he’s convinced himself is right for her, Will ends up putting Tom in danger. Predictably, a foray back into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest almost ends in disaster.
But Tom is a survivor. Eventually, her father needs her more than she needs him.
“The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” Tom tells Will in the lead-up to the film’s final scene.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
Not always, it seems. Thank god.