Paranoia and love play key roles in the compassionate film “Leave No Trace”. Beautifully acted and well-written, we come to understand the damage war has on the psyche, and how unprepared our young soldiers are for the emotional havoc war exacts.
Our setting is Portland,Oregon, but much of the film is watching survivalist maneuvers in a National Park. We see rain water gathered on plastic sheets, moss squeezed for its moisture. Mushrooms and berries are foraged, and egg shells are scattered over young lettuces. Branches are feathered for fire starts, and important objects like birth certificates and baby teeth are buried and hidden for safe-keeping. Hard work is balanced by the beauty of sun-filtered shadows and dew-dampened webs.
Ben Foster is Will, our veteran PTSD sufferer. He is father of a 15 year-old girl, who lives under make-shift shelters with him deep in government-protected land. “Tom” is an introductory role for Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Their father- daughter relationship is delightful to behold. In slow almost motionless vignettes, we see them practice hiding from the park rangers or anyone who might report their trespassing over-reach of public land. It is against the law to make one’s home here. Much of their efforts involve covering their tracks. ”Leave No Trace” is an apt title.
“Moving On” becomes their literal mantra. A mantra, that ironically Will and many of our veteran soldiers can not emotionally accomplish without psychiatric help. The effort to help our duo is half of the film. Director Debra Granik is perfect at capturing social workers, veteran counselors, and understanding compatriots and citizens trying to ease Will and Tom back into civilization. Ayanna Berkshire and Dale Dickey play roles that are both insightful and compassionate. Writers Granik and Anne Rosellini provide a more graceful tone than in their earlier, outlier film,” Winter’s Bone” (2010), starring then another newcomer, Jennifer Lawrence.
There are so many nuanced scenes that will stay with you: bunnies being shown at a Young Farmers of America fair, bees covering a trusted keeper’s hand, an army sack filled with food hung on a tree branch.
War is trauma and this film reminds us of that. How do we turn boys into killers and then leave them hanging with the baggage? When Tom tells her Dad sweetly that “ the same thing that is wrong with you, is not wrong with me”, and her Dad responds with his loving, “ I know”, we are at the climax of the film. Walking backwards has never been more heart-wrenching. The audience is in the hand of this extraordinarily moving film. All nature is trembling with them. As for the haunted soldiers hiding, their weight becomes ours. This is a “do not miss”, filmgoers.