Granik's first feature since 2010's Winter's Bone – excluding a 2014 documentary called Stray Dog – once again tells a tale of poor white people living on society's fringes. Yet for Leave No Trace Granik swaps out the scary meth dealers of Appalachian Missouri for an array of decent folks in the Pacific Northwest. The forest scenery here is lusher and more welcoming than that in Winter's Bone, which I suppose is the point, as this story concerns a father and daughter who live a sustainable life alone in the woods and thus do not consider themselves homeless, despite what social workers keep telling them.
At its core, Leave No Trace is a portrait of PTSD – the father, Will, played by Ben Foster, is a veteran of some sort, though details about what he experienced, and when, and where, are purposefully scant. (The film takes place in contemporary times.) Even the reasons why he prefers to live in the forest, with all of its trials and tribulations, are never fully explained, though we are free to guess.
Then we have Will's teenage daughter, Tom, played by a meek but likable actress with the grandiose name of Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Considering that Will is depriving her of normal adolescent experiences such as friendships, romances, and even electricity, Tom doesn't seem all that bothered by it. She is, in her own way, a feral child. (Mom is out of the picture, again for unexplained reasons.) It's only when she gets a taste of shelter and society that she quietly begins yearning for a more stable life.
Leave No Trace is both unpredictable, in the sense that the plot never telegraphs its mild twists, and frankly a little dull. I'm not asking for gunfights or screaming matches, and I sense that Granik has made exactly what she set out to make – it is an assured work – but the film is so discreet and unbiased that, in the end, it feels a little nonchalant. It should have been a haunting experience, but it hasn't really stayed with me.