Leave No Trace

Do you enjoy a good story with compelling and memorable heroes and heroines? This monthly column features homeschooled characters in literature and film. Wish you had your own copy of the book or movie? Just click on the product image or text links to go to the author’s site or Amazon to buy it!

By Tab Olsen

In this 2018 movie, a man named Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter “Tom” (Thomasin McKenzie) are living an idyllic off-the-grid existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon. That is, until a small mistake derails their way of life. Both are put into social services and must adjust to new surroundings – but can they?

The lush fern forest scenery in this movie is gorgeous! It’s fascinating to observe how adeptly father and daughter live in the woods, collecting water and gathering food. The opening sequence unfolds with almost no dialogue, giving us an intimate sense of their routine. Will and Tom live in isolation, only entering town occasionally for food and supplies. It’s interesting how comfortable they are outdoors without a roof over their heads, rather than in traditional housing. But with no exposition, we are left wondering… Where is the mom? Why are they living in the woods? How long have they been there?

The ultimate wildschooler, Tom lives in freedom surrounded by nature. She has learned plenty of survival skills from her dad, a military veteran, who appears to have been in Special Forces or something. But Tom is certainly no uncivilized jungle girl; she’s a nice gentle soul. We see her reading an encyclopedia that she brought into the woods, and she is particularly enamored with the entry on seahorses. Unfortunately, her study time is interrupted when their camp is discovered and they are whisked away.

Social Worker: “We don’t have any record of you going to school. Who taught you how to read?”

Girl: “My dad teaches me.”

Social Worker: “You’re actually quite a bit ahead of where you need to be, but school is about social skills too, not just intellectual ones.”

Girl: “Can I see my dad now?”

Of course, they had to throw in the ubiquitous socialization question! But Tom seems just fine. In fact, she adjusts to “normal” civilized life much better than her dad does. After Will and Tom are sent to live on a tree farm, Tom even befriends a boy about her age who raises rabbits and introduces her to 4-H. Her fondness for animals is a minor theme throughout the movie.

Leave No Trace is a refreshing (and award-winning) film that deals with realistic topics including homelessness, alternative living, PTSD, and the struggle for some people to cope with society’s demands. It’s directed by Debra Granik from a script adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini. The film is adapted from a novel, My Abandonment, by Peter Rock. The book is actually based on a true story. The author explains:

“About five years ago, I read a short mention of a thirteen-year-old girl and her father discovered living in Forest Park, a rugged wilderness that borders downtown Portland. They had been living there for four years in a carefully camouflaged camp, ingeniously escaping detection, venturing into the city to collect his disability checks and to shop for the groceries they couldn’t grow. He had been homeschooling the girl, who tested beyond her age group. A second newspaper article described how the two had been relocated to a horse farm; the father had been given a job, and the girl was to start middle school in the fall. I thought the situation was resolved, and filed the story away; then a third brief newspaper mention described how the two had disappeared one night. I waited and waited, searched the Web, but months passed and there was no more information. The two had truly disappeared. Unable to find out more information about how they lived or what became of them, my mind began to spin out possibilities. I realized I had to tell the story myself in order to satisfy my curiosity.”

So the first half of the story is based on real facts, while the second half is entirely the product of the writer’s imagination. It starts out plausible enough, but then the situations the author devises don’t make much sense in the context of the beginning of the novel, or according to the nature of the characters for that matter. The movie veers pretty far off the beaten path, too. But the female director, I believe, did a better job recognizing and addressing the more intricate sensibilities of the story, to keep it more true to life.

In fact, this is one of those rare instances (like Jaws), where the movie is actually much better than the book. The events in the book are so vastly different from the script as to be almost two different stories. For one thing, the film prettied up the ending making it somewhat sad and bittersweet instead of the ridiculous, brutal, shocking ending that the author wrote. I’m so glad the screenwriter changed that!

Overall, the movie is a moving portrait of a loving father-daughter relationship. Will has been a good parent, which is evident in how wonderfully Tom has turned out. She isn’t afraid to think for herself, telling her dad, “the thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.” Tom could have run away at any time, and yet curiously she stays with dad and obeys him, even when she disagrees with him. But it’s not like they’re devout Christians or anything, because they only venture into a church for the first time once they’re forced to live in civilization. (It’s so cute how Tom was excited to learn that God created frogs!)

The acting in the movie is great, including the subtle nonverbal messages. For example, you can really feel how much the presence of four walls and a ceiling torments Will and makes him feel trapped. It’s nice that the movie doesn’t hammer viewers over the head with didactic preaching about the evils of the world like they did in Captain Fantastic, another film about a father who chooses to live off the grid with his children. In Leave No Trace, the critique of society is there in the material, but it’s implicit, not explicit.

The main problem with this story is that I think the writers made a big mistake. Because even though we never really find out what the dad’s problem is (it almost seems more like a mental illness than classic PTSD), it’s hard to believe that he would have a panic attack every time he hears a helicopter. Ask any U.S. military veteran, and they will tell you that the sound of a helicopter coming overhead was music to their ears. Since helicopters are predominantly on the American side, why would anyone in the U.S. military be scared of them!

Anyway, I must admit the ending of the movie isn’t very satisfying. It just brings up more questions rather than tying up loose ends. However, with that being said, I still enjoyed this movie and would watch it again. (It’s free right now on Amazon Prime.) I can’t help but wonder what happened to the real-life father and daughter, so that mystery only adds to the appeal of the story. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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