Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), “didn’t need to be rescued.” On the fringes of society, in an urban, wildland park in Portland, Oregon, the pair cultivated gardens, built fires, and lived off the land. When their basic needs exceeded what they could find in the park, they went to the grocery store in the city. Leave No Trace portrays the heartbreaking relationship between a haunted, war-weary veteran and his intelligent yet isolated daughter as they intentionally attempt to survive outside the confines and demands of society.
The inventive but fragile rhythm of their lives is interrupted when park rangers discover their camp, and Social Services forces them to reintegrate into society. Caseworkers find themselves in awe of Will and Tom’s intellectual adaptability yet insist on labor, education, and material accommodations to provide Will and Tom the “social skills” necessary for true independence from institutional oversight. Complete freedom, it turns out, is illusory, and the precarity inherit in alternative lifestyles is exacerbated by those threatened by them. Leave No Trace had an opportunity to amplify the nuances of an unconventional life choice, yet it ultimately asks whether it is ever productive to question the virtues and warmth of the hive.