You can think you understand everything about someone and still not really understand anything at all. Will and Tom, the protagonists of Debra Granik’s 2018 Leave No Trace, know each other better than anyone ever could. One is an Iraq war veteran who visibly struggles with maintaining his fragile peace of mind. The other is his almost-but-not-quite-teenage daughter who’s slowly learning what being her own person means. The two of them live in a park almost cut off from society, only going into Portland for the occasional grocery haul.
We don’t know how long it’s been since these two have lived this way. We know that Tom’s never been to traditional school (her father’s education however seems more than adequate; a social worker will later on explain that she is ahead of the level that’s expected of children of her age), and that she doesn’t remember her mother. It feels fair to assume that this is all she’s ever known. Will, on the other hand, has known too much already. He doesn’t take his medication anymore, but anyone would know that he’s far from healed. He’s built a safe place for himself, one that he can’t ever leave.
When the two have to change the way they live, Will feels scared. Every scene in the city feels strange, unfamiliar, almost threatening. The house that Tom and Will shortly live in isn’t even that involved in city life. He makes the choice of getting rid of the television that is provided to them and rejecting opportunities to get a phone. He can work with nature and animals. This is probably the closest thing to his old lifestyle he’ll be able to find in the city — but close enough is never good enough. He wants his version of safety, not what other people think it should be.
It’d be easy enough for him to leave and never look back if it weren’t for Tom. Granik refuses to see their differences as an all-or-nothing debate. She wasn’t shielded from the outside world to the point of not knowing anything about what’s going on in it. It would have been easy to make her arrival in the big city a fairytale-like experience for her, to make her fascinated with the new people and new habits she discovers. The more nuanced truth is that she’s just as lost as her father is — what she can’t understand is why he doesn’t at least try to make the best out of this new life that’s been given to them.
This isn’t a kind of misunderstanding that can be solved through arguments, or even a lot of talking. Leave No Trace is consistently quiet, letting nature speak for itself, always favoring whispers over screams. Despite being the story of two characters drifting apart, the film is not a fight; or if it is one, it is a fight that’s been already fought. There’s no question as to what the issue will be; the only thing left to do is to accept it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or any less heartbreaking. Granik finds the pain in the inevitable, how embracing the necessary can feel just as violent as trying to reject it.
There’s no coming back to the way Will is now, but that is not to say that the film doesn’t let on that it could have been prevented. Will’s past as a war veteran isn’t outwardly discussed. Tom is aware it happened, but she doesn’t know the details. How could she, when he has been taught so thoroughly to repress it ? No matter how well intentioned the social workers he meets are, they simply can’t understand him. By refusing to acknowledge Will’s pain, it only grew stronger and stronger, leaving him unable to turn back. While Tom is able to live in the ‘normal’, it’s simply too much for her father. Realizing that they can’t be happy in each other’s company anymore despite loving each other the most is a heartbreaking realization. In another world, one where PTSD sufferers were given proper care, one where caring about veterans was given more than one day a year, they could have been a happy family.
Leave No Trace’s title almost feels ironic once we reach the end of the film. Yes, in appearance, these are about people that we forget about, those that live in the margins of normality as we envision it. They leave no mark in our peaceful city lives, and if they accidentally do, we’re quick to erase them. But in the end, this story is one of traces — of the events that we can’t erase, of the people that we left behind even when we didn’t want to. They shape our lives and everyone that is affected by them, no matter how hard we try to erase them. As we leave Will and Tom, we know things will never be the same. Yet, on some level, they’re the same as they ever were.