by S.M. Chen  |  5 August 2018  |

In 2004, the “Oregonian” ran a series about a father and daughter who had lived for 4 years in Forest Park, a 5200-acre public municipal park in the Tualatin Mountains west of Portland, OR.

5 years later, author Peter Rock published a novel, My Abandonment, based on the above true events.

Now auteur Debra Granik has made a film based on Rock’s book.  

In general, movies based on books are not superior to the derivative work.  Granik’s film may be an exception.

Running 108 minutes, it has been virtually universally praised.  It garnered a rare 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and a 4/4 rating by film critic Roger Ebert.

Ben Foster, reliable character actor, plays Will, the father.  Newcomer Thomasin McKenzie, from New Zealand, holds her own in a lead role as Tom, the 13-year-old daughter.  This film may launch her career, much as Winter’s Bone (another Granik work) did for actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Many films have parts that strain credulity.  Viewers are inclined to cut cinema slack, reasoning almost anything can happen because “Well, it’s a movie.”   I found virtually nothing in Leave No Trace that seemed as if it didn’t happen – or couldn’t have. That lent the film authenticity and made it memorable.

Will suffers from some sort of PTSD, incurred in a nameless war (does it matter?  As William Tecumseh Sherman opined of the Civil War: “War is hell.”). Tom’s mother has died, and Will is raising her alone – off the grid.  The tenderness and bond between the two is almost palpable; I cannot imagine a superior casting fit. Tom’s favorite color is yellow – as was her mother’s; Tom misses the mother she has never known.

The pair’s effort to leave no trace is not entirely successful.  Although they live off the land, and seem to practice, as much as possible, the dictum: “Pack it in, pack it out,” they have to leave their refuge periodically for supplies.  Will raises funds by selling medication. They return quickly to their wilderness haven.

So they are discovered, and forced to leave the woods (in which they live illegally).  They later break into a cabin in another woods and help themselves to victuals that keep starvation at bay.  Granik does not condone their actions, but neither does she condemn them.

The director could easily take a position about PTSD, the homeless, the desire for simple living, home schooling a child – but she does not.  She simply shows how it is for some who have chosen a lifestyle different from that of most of us.

How to reconcile the conflict created by the demons with which Will wrestles, and his desire for a lifestyle devoid of TV and cellphones, not to mention a bed, furniture and appliances, with the educational and social needs of a 13 year old?Like singer/composer Joni Mitchell, one can see both sides.

Near the end of the film, Tom, wanting to put down roots and stay with a group of people who were kind to them when her father was injured, tells her father:  “The same thing that’s wrong with you, isn’t wrong with me.” It is a simple statement, nonaccusatory yet devastating in its implications.

This is a breakthrough moment for her.  Prior to this, she had always been willing to live as he did, endure the cold and privation, be there for and with him.  

In a variant to the parable of the Prodigal Son, wherein the father hugs the son goodbye, the daughter hugs the Prodigal Father.  He must pursue a path she will no longer take.

In a scene of great poignancy, she removes a necklace with seahorse pendant from her own neck and places it around his.  They clasp each other as if the moment should not end. But end it must. She turns to walk away, and utters the animalistic chirp that says, in code:  “I love you.” It is a safe sound they have learned will not give them away, and that, besides them, perhaps only the gods understand.

He continues on the path that leads to wilderness and does not look back.

She returns on the path that leads to the RV park, a semblance of civilization, to the dog she has come to love, to the beehive one of the kindly denizens has introduced her to.

But she does not forget her father.  How could she?

Thereafter, with regularity, she hangs a bag – perhaps of dried carrots, as an older woman did before her – on a limb of a tree at the edge of the forest, looks around, and utters the secret chirp.  She waits and listens for an answering chirp, one that will tell her that her father is still among the living.

There is in this work no violence, no coarse language.  Nothing objectionable or contrived. Dialogue is direct.  Photography is lovely, as is the accompanying soundtrack. It is refreshing to see that simple ingredients are yet used to create something that, in another milieu, might hang in a museum.

The film closes the way it opens, with a close-up of the gossamer web of a spider, bathed in the liquid gold of sunlight.

Such a web, if memory serves, was spun at the entrance of a cave that concealed some Waldenses, a persecuted European religious minority.  It led pursuers to go elsewhere. One day something similar may happen to protect other followers of light from followers of darkness who would harm them.

This gem of a film brought a heightened awareness of what it means to be human.  The children of the Almighty come from various walks of life, some perhaps unexpected.  

It behooves us to be tolerant.  And gentle and kind.

For who knows when it may be our turn to walk in the shoes of another, perhaps less fortunate?

The overarching theme of the cosmos is love.

As I Corinthians 13 reminds us, without it we are nothing.

And, if we have nothing else, it alone is sufficient.


S.M. Chen writes from California.

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