Every Eden hides a serpent.
Will and daughter Tom live in what some would call paradise—a sprawling, lush, untamed forest near Portland, Oregon. They eat wild mushrooms (fried on reflective fabric). They drink rainwater (collected on tarps). They breathe in the humid air, submerge themselves in the forest’s dewy silence.
They walk to the city when they must, buying food and maybe a little propane. Will goes to the VA office and collects a few vials of pills. Then he and Tom go to a homeless camp and trade the vials for a few folded bills—cash for the next trip to town.
Some would look at Will and Tom in envy. They have very little but want for nothing.
But civilization loathes outliers. Father and daughter both know that if someone spots them, they’ll not be allowed to stay where they are. Will needs a job, civilization will say. Tom needs to go to school. They need to be integrated. Assimilated. So some days, they practice vanishing into the verdant wild. They hide when they hear footfalls.
Theirs is a forbidden Eden. They have no walls to protect them, but they mean to stay.
But it’s not just the outside world that threatens. It’s the one within, too.
Will suffers terrible nightmares. Sometimes, when he thinks Tom’s not looking, he cradles his head in his hands, rocked with unspoken misery. A veteran and a victim of an unnamed conflict, he came home whole in body but not in spirit.
So he balms his fissured mind through nature, salves it through his relationship with his daughter. Chess games. Science lessons. Hiding drills. And every night before Will and Tom fall asleep, they give each other their version of a good-night kiss: a signal of sorts, a double-click of the tongue.
“Tcchk, tcchk,” it goes. It means I love you.
Tom does love her dad, more than anything. She’s known no one else. Her world is the one he built for her.
But Tom is now 13, and part of her would like to know more. To see for herself the civilization they run from. Perhaps even talk with someone else.
Will and Tom’s world may look like paradise, but it is no unspoiled Eden. The serpent slithers here, just as elsewhere. This lush illusion is set in a soap bubble, and with each passing day, pressures inside and out push it a little closer to breaking … to join the broken world outside.
Leave No Trace tells the story of a father-daughter relationship that’s more universal than it might seem at first. After all, how many fathers have tried to keep their daughters close and protect them from the outside world? How many daughters love their dads, but feel the tug to pull away from their protection?
Will, in many respects, is a tremendous father. Tom is the focus of his whole life, in a way, and he teaches her everything he can: writing, science, languages, arithmetic, as well as the essential survival skills they both need to live as they do. When they do land in civilization for a bit, Tom takes a test that suggests she’s advanced well past her would-be grade level (suggesting the level of attention Tom has given to her education). And when Will takes a test of his own—one to measure his psychological state—he confesses how proud he is of his daughter.
Tom loves her father just as much as he does her. She sees his strength and dedication and resourcefulness, and she offers him a level of respect that we rarely see today. But—and especially as the story wears on—Tom also sees how broken Will is, too. She wants to help him get better. So she does everything she can to aid her father, buffering Will from the outside world and bringing him what solace she can.
As the pair teeters on the edge of wilderness and civilization, each pulled in different directions, they run into several people who want to help them (though whether those folks are always helpful is debatable). Sympathetic counselors and psychologists try to put father and daughter in a situation that will give them at least a measure of autonomy and an ongoing connection with nature. A well-meaning tree farmer gives Will a job. A former Army medic steps in to provide both medical and spiritual healing. They land in a group of off-the-grid hippies who provide them with something that Tom deeply, painfully desires: community.
One of the most telling interactions takes place when Will and Tom are finding their way back to the wilderness. They try to snag a ride up north with a truck driver, but the driver is naturally (and rightly) suspicious of a man with a young girl in tow trying to hitch a ride in the middle of the night. He talks with Tom alone, just to make sure that she’s really Will’s daughter and t shathe’s not being held against her will.
“I just need to know I’m doing the right thing,” he says.
It sums up the motivation of, I think, pert near everyone we meet in this film. There are no villains here. Even if we may question some of the decisions that are made (and we probably should), Leave No Trace suggests that most people want to do the right thing. And in these suspicious times, that’s pretty refreshing.
When Will and Tom spend a bit of time in civilization, they’re encouraged by Will’s new boss to go to church. The pastor invites the congregants to greet one another (which Will and Tom uncomfortably do), then introduces the “For His Glory” dance troupe, which performs to a worship song. Tom is fascinated by the flags that some of them use in the performance and spends some time talking with a performer. When they leave the church, the pastor shakes Will’s hand and says, “We’d love to have you back. Join us anytime.”
Back at home, Tom reads from a pamphlet and tells Will, “Dad. God created frogs.”
“Says who?” Will responds.
When Tom and Will are first discovered, a counselor asks Tom several probing questions about the nature of her relationship with her dad. The counselor notes that they sleep in the same tent (it’s warmer that way, Tom explains), and she asks whether Tom’s ever been inappropriately touched or if felt uncomfortable with her father. Tom says no to both questions, and quite truthfully.
Tom strikes up a conversation with Isaiah, a teen about her age. They spend some time talking about rabbits in Isaiah’s house. He shows her a “tiny house” that he’s building and encourages her to come to his 4-H club sometime. But the relationship goes no farther.
Tom showers, but the curtain obscures everything but her head.
One night in a new forest, Tom nearly freezes, in part because her boots leak. (Will puts her bare feet on his stomach to warm them up.)
Tom spends some time handling bees, and the keeper tells her that bees don’t want to sting anybody, because when they do, they die. A couple of people allow bees to crawl on their hands without protection, and Tom cheerfully tells Will that most humans can withstand about 500 bee stings.
[Spoiler Warning] Will goes out one day and doesn’t come back when Tom expects, prompting Tom to rifle through important papers that Will keeps in a plastic bag. She finds a newspaper clipping about an epidemic of military suicides therein. The next morning, Will’s still not back, and when Tom goes out looking for him, she hears a gunshot. She runs toward the shot and finds her father: He didn’t shoot himself (as she might’ve feared), but did get into an accident and is out cold. Tom finds some passersby, who take Will in. (We see a cut on his scalp, and one of his feet is pretty messed up, too.) Though they’d like to take Will to a hospital, Tom begs them to take care of him there, and so they do. Will spends quite a long time—somewhere between several days to a few weeks—recuperating.
As mentioned, Will takes pills from the VA and sells them, though the buyer says, “They’re all pretty much useless anyway.”
When the truck driver takes them up north, the driver tells Will that marijuana is legal in Washington state nowadays, and he starts talking about folks who’ve been destroyed by opioids. “Devastated their lives, families, too,” he says. “Ruined their marriages.”
Will and Tom are obviously breaking the law by living in the parks as they do. When the government catches up to them, they bolt without warning. They break into an apparently deserted cabin to spend a few nights out of the elements, eating the food they find there and using the stove.
We think of forests as beautiful things, alive and wonderful. And so they are. I go hiking through them whenever I can.
But we didn’t always see forests as these picturesque weekend playgrounds. They’re places of darkness, too. And danger. We need only to look at our fairy tales to see how our forests were once feared: Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood; Hansel and Gretel. People, especially girls, would go in and never come out. Simply … vanish.
A girl stands at the heart of Leave No Trace, too. And in the midst of the forest’s obvious beauty, we feel the darkness of the place, the foreboding. The movie even seems to nod to the world of fairy tales early on, when a pack of howling, yapping dogs (coyotes? Wolves?) yammers outside their tent.
“Seems like the pack’s gotten bigger,” Tom tells her father as Will shoos them away.
The pack could be seen as an echo (as Will would see it) of a hostile civilization ominously assaulting the world he’s built for himself and his daughter: Tom, passively curious about the clamor; Will desperately trying to will them away. Perhaps, it might symbolize the despair and melancholy howling in Will’s own mind. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither.
Leave No Trace tells a powerful and poignant story—one that’s simultaneously unique and universal, tragic and hopeful. And it, like the world it constructs, seems almost from another world, one of innocence and wonder unsullied by our own fallen one. It proves that movies don’t need to scare us or scar us or make us blush to tell an effecting, perhaps unforgettable, story. We hear not a single curse word, see not a single fist thrown in anger. It is, in truth, one of my favorite movies of the year.
But while the story is remarkably clean, a fallen world lies at its heart. Leave No Trace is, after all, a story predicated on deep brokenness, and the difficulty of effectively healing those deep wounds.
Leave No Trace, based on Peter Rock’s book My Abandonment, takes its title from a long-standing principle of hikers, campers and nature-lovers—to pick up your trash, pack up your waste and leave the wilderness as unspoiled as you found it.
But when we hike into this story, we carry our own baggage, too—burdens that shape our experience, for better or worse. And when we pack up our things and head out at the end of our two hours, we’ll bring a part of this story with us.
That’s what good stories do. They always leave a trace.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.