As the novelist and historian Vilhelm Moberg observed, traditional Swedish society, despite (or perhaps given) its penchant for social conformity, permitted individuals a form of voluntary exile, marking them down in legal documents as skoggång (“gone to the forest”). The vast Swedish wilderness of centuries past “became an asylum for all who had unilaterally annulled their contract with society,” be they political refugees or lovers forbidden a life together in town. Such exiles did not exist outside the legal framework, for they continued to have rights, the foremost being the right to be left alone.
America, however, is a different story. Perhaps this can be traced back to our perpetual wars against Native Americans, whose simple presence made white settlers view the forest as a threat. Too, runaway slaves often found refuge in the immense tracts of land not yet brought into capitalist cultivation. We tend to view those outside society with suspicion, something the main characters of “Leave No Trace” know well. Will (Ben Foster) lives with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in Forest Park outside of Portland, Ore. They gather rainwater, collect plants and mushrooms, cook over a campfire, share a tent and practice concealment. Their lives depend upon secrecy. When they need other supplies, they go into town, where Will gets prescriptions filled at the VA hospital and then turns around and sells the pills for cash. Although he has trouble sleeping, waking up occasionally to the sound of helicopters in his ears, he doesn’t self-medicate. All he needs is isolation, which Tom complements with careful devotion.
That soon changes when their camp site is discovered and Will and Tom are brought into the system, with its social workers and forms to be signed. Their caseworkers do manage to find them a home together, getting Will a job harvesting Christmas trees. Tom settles into the rhythms of a “normal” life — especially the comfort of community. Soon, however, Will packs his rucksack to take Tom back into the woods, looking for a new place to set up camp. At each stop, they are rescued by the genuine kindness of strangers, which fuels the divide between Tom and her father all the more.
Writer/director Debra Granik offers in “Leave No Trace” a minimalist story stocked with only good-hearted people that still manages to be as tense as her previous movie, the Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone.” Granik exhibits such phenomenal skill and complete control over the story that she can relay more information with a moment of silence than other directors can with an impassioned speech. Ben Foster as Will never falls into the Hollywood stereotype of damaged veteran (a la John Rambo). He is a normal man to most eyes, his pain so deep we only ever get hints of its presence. But even more impressive is McKenzie’s performance; she plays Tom as simultaneously nervous and out-of-place but also wanting to belong, a young woman divided in her desires but filled with enough inner strength to set her own path.
As lush as the movie is, so filled with the jaw-dropping scenery of the Pacific Northwest, “Leave No Trace” avoids easy dichotomies between nature and society, rural and urban, for true kindness manifests itself wherever Will and Tom go. It is not the present evils of humanity that drive them further into the forest — it is Will’s own personal history. And as Tom eventually says to him, “Dad, what’s wrong with you ain’t what’s wrong with me.” While so many popular films depend upon the conceit that we can all be fixed — the shy girl can learn confidence, the tormented soul can find healing — “Leave No Trace” offers, instead, a narrative of learning how to deal with the various ways in which we are broken. Some broken people gather together in communities, while others annul their contract with society, at least for a time. Granik casts no judgment either way; there is no final salvation in this world, only learning where we belong, and with that, perhaps, a bit of peace.