Screen Time

In Leave No Trace, American life fails a veteran and his daughter

Debra Granik's film is a masterful familial drama—and much more.

My favorite movie of the summer is the quiet masterpiece Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik. It is a coming of age drama that is also about the country’s mistreatment of veterans, the devastation of PTSD, and the prospect of building a meaningful life in the ruins of a broken social order.

Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are a father and daughter living illegally on public land outside Port­land, Oregon. We don’t know how long they have been there, but presumably most of Tom’s 13 years. The first 15 minutes of the film pass in near silence, revealing how the two go about their day-to-day life gathering food, kindling, and water; repairing their protective tarps; and homeschooling Tom through their collection of books. It is an isolated life, but it’s obvious they are happy—maybe happier than most of us can imagine.

When they are discovered and forced back into society, they have to trade expansive freedom for the confines of a shabby house and alienated labor. The fall from their self-made Eden also includes Tom’s entrance into the knowledge of all that she has been missing.