Debra Granik maps out this father-daughter bond on a molecular level
Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) find themselves caught in “civilization.”
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
I’m a sucker for stories about fathers and daughters. Not in the way that the political figures seek to use the relationships for cover. I’m not one of those men who can only relate to the #MeToo because I’ve got stepdaughters. The narratives I tend to gravitate towards are those like writer-director Bo Burnham’s recent indie drama Eighth Grade, which offers up a young girl (Elsie Fisher) on the verge of diving headlong into the troubled waters of high school in the social media age, but also keeps an eye on her emotionally harried single father (Josh Hamilton) as he seeks to steady her during this perilous journey. I love the vulnerability we see in these characters. The sense of love and sacrifice that flows both ways.
Even a throwaway teen comedy like 10 Things I Hate About You—which seems to be enjoying heavy rotation on cable at the moment—triggers sentimental longing as I watch Larry Miller’s widowed father attempt to protect his teenage daughters (Larisa Oleynik and Julia Stiles) from the dangerous intentions of teenage boys, but also navigate the very real intricacies of their growth into self-sufficient people. He wants to know that he has prepared them as best he can for the world, but the impossibility of life breeds futility at every turn.
Debra Granik, the writer-director who broke through with her 2010 drama Winter’s Bone(which formally introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence), surveys the treacherous American landscape, particularly the invisible nether-region where young women learn to survive by fighting for each and every breath they take. Forget the clueless suburban wasteland littered with stale jokes about the latest fashion and lost virginity.
And once again, Granik strips away the comedic hysteria and the allusions to Shakespeare in her new film Leave No Trace, but the core imperative to prepare and protect remains. Will (Ben Foster), a recently returned veteran lives a life on the fringe in an urban park in Portland, Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They exist as part of a network of folks, a community that lives by its wits and survival skills. Tom forages for wild mushrooms, collects and converts rain water for drinking and bathing, and can build and maintain a fire. These may seem like Boy Scout techniques from days long gone, but this is how Will and Tom exist, and watching them go through their daily pursuits, it’s worth wondering how many of us could last more than a day or two on our own in such a setting.
The scenes shout out from the edge of these protected parks to the urban homeless camps in Cincinnati that are being broken up by city officials. There is a criminalization of these people in real life and we see an analogous situation in Leave No Trace once Will and Tom are corralled by park authorities. Tom is questioned about her relationship with her father, whether or not he has been inappropriate with her. There are more mundane concerns as well, about her education and preparedness for the modern world. She can erect a perfect tent and keep warm and dry, but can she read at grade level and master a cell phone or listen to music?
A conflict emerges between their way of life on the land and the pressure to adapt to a rural life that is formalized and modern to a startling degree. That clash of ages is far more starkly drawn here than in Eighth Grade—where the daughter is a child who has been nurtured in the technological age to such an extent that it is not simply second nature to her, but the only thing she knows—but Granik shows us how quickly it seduces even the strong-willed Tom. We appreciate how Tom won’t ever let go of the lessons her father taught her, yet she is also open and easily engaged by the world he has attempted to shield her from.
All of which ultimately reveals the deeper issue that develops between Tom and Will as they continue to travel deeper into the hidden fringe. He is a man struggling with trauma and slipping down a steep slope. He attempts to curb his reliance on medication to quiet his mind through disconnection from the hyper-charged world, but is it fair that Tom should be forced to live the same kind of life? The film captures the universal dynamic between teens and their parents, but the stakes are unfamiliar. Yet, Foster and McKenzie present a level of humanity that is timelessly authentic.
To get the full gist of Leave No Trace requires a willingness to slice into it, like an onion, so that the layers are visible, but doing so means risking exposure to the spicy sting and the familiar pungency of the relationship between Will and Tom.