Throughout its almost two-hour run-time, the one reoccurring thought I had while watching Leave No Trace was “I have too many things.” I thought this watching Will and Tom play chess in their beloved camp, I thought this watching them move into their new, walled, home, only to end up sleeping outside, and I thought this watching Tom play with Chainsaw, a cute rabbit with soft ears. Maybe it’s the lack of superfluous desires. Maybe it’s the serene forests. Maybe it’s the lush vegetation and calming amount of green. “You really don’t need so many things”, the movie said to me.
“Lush” is a particularly interesting word in the context of this movie, because of the word’s dual meanings. While the word can be used to describe a life of luxury, and plenty — think parties, champagne, private planes — , it’s also often used to describe nature and its beauty. So while Leave No Trace tells the story of a daughter living with his father in the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, it’s simultaneously saying something about the unnecessity of living a lavish, luxurious, and lush life.
Most films have something to say, but what separates a great film from a lesser one is how it goes about saying it. Leave No Trace, directed by Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, is neither preachy, nor overly-idealistic. As a New York Times review describes it: “In its best moments, Leave No Trace invites you to simply be with its characters.” And it’s with those characters that we see why their living situation works for them, and the harmony of their lives.
Part of the reason for their living situation is because Will suffers from PTSD. He’s visibly uncomfortable in the presence of loud noises and other people, the latter of which may also be the result of his experience with government institutions. Being out in the forest with his daughter is the only time he can feel some semblance of peace.
For Tom, it works simply because she’s with her dad, and because she likes it. Living in the forest is not all she knows. Her father hasn’t entirely closed them off to the rest of the world. We’re shown that she and Will make the journey into town for supplies from time to time, so if Tom had a real interest to live a more modern, and “normal”, life, she might have fought harder to stay in the house they were given.
Leave No Trace is also about helping people in the ways that we assume they need help. After Will and Tom are arrested, the social workers that work on their case offer their help in ways that are all grounded in assumptions about them, most notably that they want a home with a ceiling and walls. What they fail to see is that as odd as it may seem to them, Will and Tom’s way of life works for them. They don’t need to be saved.
While the attempts made by the social workers come from a good place, they end up being invasive and disruptive to Will and Tom. One can’t help but feel like the only people who feel good as a result of that help is the social workers themselves. Are they really trying to help Will and Tom? Or are they trying to get Will and Tom to conform to society’s norms, making themselves feel less uncomfortable with what Will and Tom deem to be a perfectly fine life?
Much of this is rooted in this concept that some lives are better than others. Whereas the social workers look at Will and Tom with a sense of unspoken pity, Leave No Trace is shot in a way that does not ask viewers to pity them. There are no hints that they are discontent with their living situation, that they fantasize about a more “normal” life. They aren’t worse off than anybody else. Their life simply is the way it is.
The reverse is also true. We have no reason to believe that Will and Tom think their way of life is better than any other. Tom doesn’t look down upon the young boy taking selfies on the Greyhound, nor does she seem curious about it. She knows what it is, and probably knows what he’s doing, she just opts to not take part, the same way Will, in the house they’re forced to move into, moves the TV into the closet.
On the contrary, both Will and Tom admire and are curious about the forests they live in. The film’s title is a reference to the Leave No Trace principles of outdoor ethics, and Will and Tom follow them with military-like discipline. This admiration is reflected visually, too, in the lingerings shots of the foliage, bees, and spiderwebs, and the feeling these shots attempt to evoke is one of peace, of beauty, and are meant to be transferred to Will and Tom’s way of life. The beauty we see, then, is not the beauty in their struggle, but the beauty in the simplicity.
All screencaps are mine.