In this partially true story, a father and daughter, Will and Tom, are discovered living in a forest park on military-style campsites. Having eluded authorities and other hikers for many years, they must now learn to re-adapt to life in the outside world.
It is not immediately apparent why they have been living this isolated existence, although the film offers brief glimpses and insinuations into possible explanations. This is so artfully done that the viewer is never sure what to believe at a given moment. At times, it seems as though Tom may not even be Will’s real daughter. An air of mystery persists until it eventually becomes clear that Will is an army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and as a result, cannot trust other people.
The film progresses rather slowly with many scenes of the two in the forest, gathering plants, starting fires, and building shelters. It becomes more interesting when Tom and Will are sent to live in a farming community, though Will soon becomes anxious and persuades Tom to run away again.
Along the way, they find many opportunities to abandon this nomadic lifestyle — an empty cabin, a trailer park, a small community of campers. But every time, Will becomes distraught and tries to leave again. The viewer also slowly begins to observe the character transformation of Tom, who eventually starts to question and challenge her father’s ways.
Leave No Trace is a harrowing look into the lives of those who suffer from PTSD and other untreated mental illnesses. For those who are not suffering, it’s hard to imagine what Will is going through. Many times, he puts his daughter’s life in danger in the midst of extreme wilderness elements and also has a brush with death himself toward the end of the film, which leaves him crippled for some time.
Leave No Trace portrays the failure of the American healthcare system, the atrocities of war and a problem that has no easy solution. It far exceeded my expectations and additionally, it had a plethora of adorable farm animals to balance its dismal nature, making it a favorite for me.