Homeless Vet and Daughter Are Put to the Test in Emotionally Stirring ‘Leave No Trace’

One father’s plight to live off the grid with his daughter is chronicled in the drama “Leave No Trace.” Ben Foster gives an understated performance as Will, a vet who is introduced gathering food in the woods with his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (talented newcomer Thomasin McKenzie). The girl’s mother is mentioned only once, in a way that leads viewer to believe she is deceased. It’s not long before it is revealed that the pair are not living in some remote part of the world, but in the middle of a large public park outside of Portland. If this sounds like it can’t possibly be legal, that’s because it’s not, as we see here when, after Tom is spotted by a hiker, the authorities come and not only remove them from the park, but also toss them into the system, thus commencing for Tom a journey more trying than anything her dad’s wilderness training could have prepared her for.

After being separated from her father for what we assume is the first time in her life, Tom does her best to hide her distress as she is scrutinized. The well-meaning social worker, Jean (Dana Millican), also causes her to question her unusual living situation. Does she think it’s weird she slept in a small tent with her dad? No, is her reply. Jean finds a house for Will and Jean on the property of a farmer (Jeff Kober), who lets them stay in exchange for Will’s working for him. McKenzie is compelling to watch here as she finds herself making friends and participating in activities like 4-H. Being at that age where hormones start to take over, boys are also a draw to her in his new world. These scenes of her discovering this new world are beautifully done, subtle and quiet. Will, meanwhile, has an internal struggle brewing inside himself. He bides by the rules, no doubt something he was accustomed to in the military. It’s not long before he feels the need to fall off the grid again, leaving Tom caught between her loyalty to her father and her desire for human connectivity.

“Leave No Trace” will no doubt remind viewers of another fairly recent film about a father struggling to raise his kids on his own terms, the whimsical drama “Captain Fantastic.” Though “Leave No Trace,” which was helmed and co-written by “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik, feels like a more stripped down, realistic version of “Captain Fantastic.” Predictably, both daughter and father are left with a heartbreaking choice.

While Tom’s journey is certainly intriguing, it feels like there is a missed opportunity here to explore Will’s background more. Early on, before he is caught, he is shown going to a local V.A. hospital to pick up medicine to treat PTSD, which he in turn sells to other “unhoused” park dwellers. While Will is an overall sympathetic character, his actions don’t always leave his daughter in the safest of situations, and it would have served the plot to have revealed the circumstances that led to his distrust of society.

Leave No Trace” opens June 29 in select theaters and expands throughout July.