When Leave No Trace begins, it’s with the sight of lush, dense greenery, as Iraq war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) wander through a sprawling old-growth forest park in Portland, Oregon. But, while leafy foliage is ever-present, writer/director Debra Granik doesn’t linger on the scenic splendour. Neither do her characters, so she’s taking their lead. Will and Tom aren’t just visiting this tree-lined spot, they live there. And they’re not merely enjoying a nice walk, but foraging for food.
A movie about finding one’s own path – be it on or off the beaten path, and with or without your nearest and dearest – Leave No Trace is also a movie about survival. For the post-traumatic stress disorder-afflicted Will, that means leaving behind society’s idea of normality and a standard life, living off the grid instead and, to get by, making the most of the natural resources at his disposal. With help from the eager and enterprising Tom, he searches for edible plants and other scavenged ingredients, which they then combine with the limited supplies they purchase from the supermarket. In their hands, a simple serving of wild mushrooms becomes a hearty, nourishing and welcome meal, for example.
Directing her third feature, her first after 2010’s acclaimed Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik devotes Leave No Trace’s opening moments to Will and Tom’s food-gathering process. They search, chop, try to start a fire with damp kindling and argue about whether to use their dwindling propane. Still in the film’s introductory act, they shop, debate whether a chocolate bar is needed or just wanted (“both,” Will replies) and, upon their return to the clandestine but elaborate camp they call home, carefully store their groceries. Their lives revolve around this routine, because it’s the routine of life, with sustenance and survival inescapably intertwined.
In a way that few filmmakers would’ve or even could’ve, Granik thrusts this fact to the fore – not only from the outset of Leave No Trace, but for the entire feature’s duration. Will and Tom’s chosen lifestyle is idyllic and happy, until a jogger spots Tom and the authorities come calling; however, the importance of being able to sustain themselves never escapes attention. Just what keeps the pair going spans more than just food, of course. It includes shelter, warmth, and emotional and intellectual fulfilment, too. And, it differs for them both. For Will, truly eschewing the rest of the world, complete with the expectations and demands that come with it, is as crucial as locating their next bite to eat. Meanwhile, Tom is more willing to adapt to the changes thrown their way, to open up their style of life to the world, and to find a place and a community where they can both fit in.
Their surroundings change, as does their situation, but food remains a constant. When tension festers in the rural cottage they’re moved into by the powers that be – on a Christmas tree farm, but devoid of any cheer for Will – it lingers over every meal, including the average-looking casserole waiting in the fridge when they arrive. When, later, Will and Tom desperately search for shelter in the Washington wilderness, Tom’s flagging energy is as much a problem as the damp seeping into her leaking boots.
Crafting a film filled with symbolism – a quiet, sensitive, understated and highly empathetic film that says more through subtlety than through overt dialogue – Granik paints a portrait of Will and Tom’s life through their relationship with food, and the fact that it’s always a pressing issue. In the Portland forest, it’s how they connect, as well as how they structure their days. On the Oregon farm, stripped of the need to forage, a meal forces them to sit together as their lives begin to veer in different directions. In Washington, seeking refuge in a trailer park, Tom becomes involved in the gathering, shopping for and distribution of groceries to other residents. As a result, food becomes her way of connecting with people other than her dad, as well as a reason that her dreams for the future start deviating from his.
In two late scenes that prove as pivotal to the movie as its opening sequences scavenging in the forest, Granik conveys the growing chasm between Will and Tom, all thanks to a beehive. The trailer park is home to one, and the persistently curious Tom is instantly fascinated. When the trust the bees place in their keeper, and vice versa, is explained to her, a light bulb sparks behind the teen’s kind but yearning eyes. When, afterwards, she brings Will to the hive and takes on the role of teacher to his beekeeping novice, he doesn’t react the same way. She sees not only sustenance but a community in the buzzing insects, while he only sees the former.
With food such a frequent part of Leave No Trace – a movie that, contrary to its moniker, leaves an enormous imprint – it’s easy to choose a meal to complement its frames. But nothing is more fitting than a dish with honey. The substance is so sweet that its name is a term of endearment, but, here, it’s one of the reasons a father and daughter realise that their loving and affectionate bond is slowly fraying. Pair it with pepperberry, soy and steak, or slather it over baked chicken and haloumi – then press play.
Watch 'Leave No Trace'
Saturday 20 February, 6:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Canada, USA, 2018
Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey
Find the recipes at SBS Food