“Leave No Trace” (based on the book “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock), which stars Ben Foster as Will and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie as Tom, is a meticulously crafted and compassionate look at hardship and nonconformity. Will and Tom are father and daughter who have been living a survivalist existence in the woods in the Pacific Northwest for as long as Tom can remember. Their relationship is tender and poignant.
Upon being discovered, the two are shown in the film attempting to re-adjust to society. After being taken in by social services, Will and Tom are questioned about their living styles and given tests – Will to asses his emotional well-being and Tom to see where she measures up academically compared to her peers. A kind farmer allows them to live in his guest house, provided that Will helps him out with tree cutting. Tom seems to like this new environment, and it gives her a taste of life outside of the woods. She even meets an adolescent male who introduces her to a local 4-H club, where she gets experience tending to a rabbit. Will, meanwhile, seems constricted and conflicted, as we see him put a TV in the closet. When he is faced with enrolling Tom in school, he sees that as their opportunity to pack up their things and move back to the woods.
They then hit the road, back to their nomadic life, with no sure destination in mind, as long as it is in the wilderness. This poses its share of risks, as they find themselves hitchhiking and walking through Washington State woods in cold weather. After a while, Tom expresses that she yearns for some of the comforts of a home, an existence Will finds confining and restrictive. This is made even more apparent when the two of them find a community of sorts in the woods where they feel a sense of belonging with the people who live there, especially Tom.
The performances feel natural and the movie unfolds in what feels like a real-life way. The film is able to reveal a great deal with its silences and stillness. McKenzie gives a remarkable performance that is completely without any child actor mannerisms. The cinematography is breathtaking, yet at the same time underscores the harshness of the environment that father and daughter find themselves in. “Leave No Trace” joins a growing list of worthwhile movies that depict characters who find themselves living on the margins and/or who go on personal journeys of self-discovery – “Wild,” “Captain Fantastic,” and “Lean on Pete.” “Leave No Trace” does leave an indelible trace on the viewer.