The things Will (Ben Foster) does to protect his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in “Leave No Trace,” a new film by Debra Granik, director of “Winter’s Bone,” may be the things that endanger her.
When we first meet Will he is a vet with PTSD living way off the grid with Tom, his only daughter. Their home is a makeshift camp in an Oregon state public park. Home schooled, Tom has never experienced the outside world, and only knows what Will has taught her about life. “Where is your home?” she’s asked. “My dad,” comes the answer. When she is spotted in the park, social services are alerted. Father and daughter are taken in, housed and reintegrated into society. Tom drinks the new experiences in, making friends at school and church, as the realization sinks in that her father is not cut out for life around other people. “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” she says. Hoping to regain his lost independence Will convinces Tom to hit the road in search of a more fulfilling life.
The questions at the heart of “Leave No Trace” are based on whether or not Will is a good father. Is he doing what is right for Tom? Their needs are so different, is he self-serving, prioritizing his needs over hers? The answers lie in Granik’s beautifully told story about the connections between people and the value of relationships.
Much of the film’s power comes from the lead performances. Foster is more reserved here, less bug-eyed and edgy, than we’ve seen him in the past. His take on Will is gentle with a deep reservoir of pain that bubbles just below the surface. It’s formidable stuff equalled by newcomer Harcourt McKenzie. Granik has an eye for casting, discovering Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone” and Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone,” and here she does it again. The young New Zealand actress gives Tom empathy and wide-eyed innocence mixed with curiosity. She is never less than natural and never less than believable.
“Leave No Trace” is an emotionally potent story about finding a path in life, even if it differs from the ones you love.