**This article contains spoilers for Leave No Trace.**
When I moved into my first apartment, I got in the habit of locking and unlocking my front door in between each trip to the car for grocery bags. My parents helped me move in, and I could feel their anxiety rising as we approached the apartment complex—a grimy gas station at the last intersection, a rusty gate at the entrance, construction on the other side of the parking lot. I had all sorts of fears about living on my own in a big city: I hate driving, and my first trip to the airport made my fingers sore from clenching the steering wheel. But I didn’t realize until months later how much of what they would call “caution” had really been fear—fear that I had picked up from them without even trying.
For most people, our parents define “normal” for us—how we celebrate Christmas, how we cut our PB&Js, whether we sleep in or get up early for church on Sunday mornings. We even pick up less concrete lessons: what “success” looks like, what amount of money is necessary to sustain a proper standard of living, how healthy relationships should work. Even more foundationally, our parents teach us what to love and what to fear.
In Debra Granik’s new film Leave No Trace, a young woman’s coming-of-age story is marked by learning to detangle her own fears and loves from her father’s—though in a much more complicated way. Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) have lived off the grid—in isolation in a large park in Oregon—for what Will later says was “too long.” They are skilled at both surviving on the land and avoiding detection. It’s clear that they don’t stay anywhere for long enough to provoke suspicion. Their life in the forest is quiet and simple, but their anxiety is palpable.
When we first meet Will and Tom, their little camp in the forest feels almost heavenly—there’s soft light, rich natural noises of birds and crunching leaves. In comparison, the city is harsh and loud, a determination that Will and Tom’s faces make it clear they share. And yet, in moments of fear or danger, the forest’s quiet becomes ominous, as harsh and dark as the surrounding city.
All of us will find that we’ve been given lenses tinted by unhealthy fears because we live in a broken world that inflicts varying degrees of trauma on everyone.
Will is a veteran of an unnamed conflict and suffers from PTSD. He sells medication provided to him by the V.A. hospital to get money for groceries, relying instead on their isolated life as a means of self-medicating. But, after the pair is discovered by the police, they are moved into a farmer’s empty home on a Christmas tree farm. Their new normal is peaceful, though it doesn’t take long for Will to decide it’s time for them to leave. Under the veil of early morning, the two continue their nomadic life until Will is badly hurt. Soon after, on the kindness of strangers, they find refuge in a small community dotted with tiny trailers and cabins.
With each successive transition, Tom becomes less and less comfortable with her father’s need to keep moving. At one point, when her father fails to adapt to their new environment, she laments:, “Did you even try? Cause I can’t tell.” When they finally land in a humble trailer community that seems to fit—their new home is small and simple, the people are down-to-earth—Tom wants to stay. Will, however, feels the itch to push forward.
Leave No Trace’s themes of trauma, community, and isolation are neatly summed when Tom runs into a woman tending to beehives. The caretaker asks her if she wants to observe the creatures. As the woman lifts the honeycomb and allows the bees to swarm around her, she says, “It means a lot to me that I have their trust. I worked hard to get it.” When Tom brings her father to see the bees, she forgoes the protective suit she wore before. “See? You don’t need to be scared,” she says.
Bees are a common fear for both children and adults, and it’s not at all an unreasonable one. Bees can sting you. There are dangers in keeping bees, but there’s also sweet honey if you can keep from fearing them too much. These scenes represent a poignant metaphor for Tom’s own development—she’s seen how people can cause pain, but she’s also learning how they can bring comfort as well. She’s seen people tear down shelters in the woods with a crane, and she heard the girls in a state-run shelter say that they’ve never seen parents come back for their kids. But she also met a boy who allows her to hold his pet rabbit, and a kind man who reset her father’s broken leg. She knows that her father keeps society in isolation because he doesn’t want to depend on others. She also knows he does it because he is suffering deeply—in ways she doesn’t understand.
In this story, a father’s fears aren’t given to his daughter accidentally or carelessly, they’re given out of a drive for survival. When Tom can say to him, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” it’s much more complicated than many of the fears our parents instill in us. In that sense, Leave No Trace is a film about mental illness, and the ways that Will’s trauma impacts his parenting, but not his love for his daughter.
The fears Will gives Tom aren’t imparted maliciously, just as most aren’t. Without trivializing the particular ways that he suffers, it’s safe to say that most parentally-imparted fears are the result of trauma of some kind or another. This story is a severe example, but it’s not very far off from the way pain is experienced, taught, and displayed in the choices we all make.
In the end, Tom does a remarkable thing that few of us are able to do: she detangles herself from her father’s fears without demonizing them. She chooses to invite the dangerous and difficult reality of community into her life, while maintaining total sympathy for her father’s fear. She understands why he makes the choices he does, even if she doesn’t want to continue making the same ones. Again, it’s massively more complicated than the average story: she’s a child that’s been raised in makeshift camps and on railroad cars by a father who is trying his absolute best while suffering the traumatic effects of warfare. And yet, I still found myself convicted of my own indifference for parental fears—fears born out of love I don’t always appreciate, and trauma I haven’t experienced. There are legitimately important lessons that Will teaches his daughter—she’s learned important survival skills, and she knows how to defend herself against real threats—just as most parents give their children a mix of healthy caution and inflated fears.
“Leave no trace” is a popular way of reminding hikers or campers that loving nature well means leaving no indication that you were ever there. But loving people is different—you actually have to leave a trace if you want to love them well. Tom chooses a life she knows will be healthier for her, even when the instincts her father has taught her tell her to avoid any dependence on others. It’s a monumental choice for a young girl to make. It’s also not too dissimilar from the choice that characterizes any other coming-of-age story: the decision to learn how to see the world through a lens other than the one you’ve been given. All of us will find that we’ve been given lenses tinted by unhealthy fears because we live in a broken world that inflicts varying degrees of trauma on everyone. But perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves and others is the ability to see the world through a new lens without completely discarding the one handed to us.