Refining and redefining home: ‘Leave No Trace’ strips contemporary notions bare

‘Leave No Trace’ is playing now at FilmScene. — video still

FilmScene is currently featuring Debra Granik’s newest movie Leave No Trace, a poignant meditation on the meaning of family and home in an all-too-familiar America where well-meaning officials create the problems that they want to resolve. The movie tracks the relationship between Will (Ben Foster), a veteran, and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), who both offer powerful and believable performances that question what it means to love another person.

The film is framed at beginning and ending by images of spider webs in the woods, rendered in dewy detail as a liminal home space for its maker. It shows the spider crawling along, and, catching the breeze, the tensile strength of each strand and thread. The spider makes itself at home where it can, finding spaces in the center of things and in doing so, connecting together spaces that would otherwise be separate.

It is a beautifully rendered metaphor for a movie that investigates different kinds of communities, each of which has distinct advantages. The cinematography of the movie is quite lovely, offering a seemingly impartial and unvarnished glimpse of natural beauty and civilized suffering, each as is appropriate to its moment. The audio mix for the movie is also worth attending to: The film opens with the sounds of birds and humans humming, and the subtle ways the volume increases — what is heard — is important to understanding the anxieties that propel Will from place to place.

The father-daughter relationship at the beginning of the movie shows an unconventional home that nonetheless works. Will compliments Tom often and allows her to take responsibility for directing necessary repairs to their dwelling. The film depicts their rigorous economy (in which everything is used, even egg shells) and the sense of peace and contentedness that they share in their lives together. But, more than that, it shows the pride that Will takes in his child and the love and trust that Tom has for her dad.

The plot propels them from their place, and leads to a series of locations and spaces that people are forced to call home: a tent encampment, a house, a care facility, a train car, a semi-truck, a church, a cabin, a trailer. The film works subtly to show how some of the spaces emerge through disconnection (equivalent to snapping the spider’s threads): the separation of father and daughter, the separation of both from nature, the separation of both from human community. Conversely, Will and Tom do best when they are allowed to be connected to the land — and to people who value that kind of connection.

The use of animals throughout the movie is nuanced and telling in this regard: It shows how Will’s life, in particular, is enhanced by the ability to have contact with a horse or a dog. Tom’s attention turns to seahorses, to rabbits, to dogs, to bees. Rather than using animals as a tool or a weapon, they instinctively know to treat animals in the loving way that they typically treat the world around them, when they’re permitted to do so. Animals, like trees and plants, are shown as dignified and capable co-inhabitants of human dwelling spaces.

All of this is juxtaposed against the house into which Will and Tom first move, a space that is glaringly generic and hostile, with advantages that seem impoverished compared to their rich, lush initial dwelling. The film pauses in this place to ensure audiences see how Will, who knows how to work hard, rankles when asked to work with trees in a way that seems alienated from their context. The kinds of “things” that they are invited to acquire seem similarly strange and estranging compared to the things that made their first dwelling a home, although (as with a bicycle) they are not necessarily bad.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in ‘Leave No Trace.’ — video still

The film refuses to pander to its audience, gracefully allowing the backstory to remain a mystery. This is true of every character that the family encounters as they travel from place to place, although something sad seems unspoken, if not unspeakable, behind the lined faces. In place of narrative, the film offers visuals, tactility and sound.

Toward the end of the movie, a community (with a cameo by musician Marisa Anderson) gathers together to sing. The honesty of this performance in a natural environment is an inspiring contrast to the music offered by the church: Like the humming that starts the movie, the song seems in harmony with nature rather than an element that obliterates the song the world sings (the way that machines do throughout the movie).

The final scene of the movie shows a matured Tom, who both realizes what her father has given her and understands what she must do because of it. Both Will and Tom are required to answer the question of how one can do what is best for the beloved. They both respond with the best that they have: They offer each other forgiveness, rather than judgment.

Without either glamorizing or repressing the pain of the final moments, the film shows that a quiet dignity is available at the bottom of humility. The movie is aware that most of the real problems that confront us are not the kinds of things that can be “fixed,” but balances this with the revelation of strength that persists in the homes on the very margins of the social world. Like the spiderwebs, the tenacity of the human and non-human inhabitants allows them, each in their own way, to dwell with kindness.

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The actors convey the hard truths of the movie with an unflinching sense of integrity, and the camera is unrelenting at exposing how much we unthinkingly sacrifice in our pursuit of living well. By stripping the notion of home and family to the bone, Granik’s film provides an excellent opportunity to re-examine one’s priorities and values as they inform how one loves.