I first heard the phrase “leave no trace” when my kids became Boy Scouts. It’s an outdoor ethic that exhorts those who enter the outdoors to leave her as beautiful as she was before our arrival. To do good by Mother Nature, we leave no trace.
The movie Leave No Trace focuses on a father-daughter duo living off the grid on public land in the Pacific Northwest. They endeavor to leave no trace in order to continue their natural and mostly solitary existence. Through stunning cinematography and intentionally restrained acting (especially remarkable in young Thomasin Mackenzie), this intensely beautiful coming of age story leaves more than a trace.
The movie wrestles with big questions: what is humanity’s best relationship with the natural world? with other people? with the self?
Dad Will and daughter Tom obviously love each other. Will has done a great job raising Tom on his own since her mother’s death. One might even envy Tom her upbringing–she knows how to forage for food and water, to garden, and to cook with very little in the way of a kitchen.
Not only does she have incredible survival skills, she doesn’t suffer the insecurities and distractions of other girls her age. She has a constant companion in her devoted parent; she reads and plays chess; she doesn’t watch TV or engage with social media; rather than spending time and money on looking beautiful, she enjoys the beauty of the world.
Yet we see Tom struggle when authorities shatter their idylls and she and Will are put into social services. Tom likes having a roof over her head and a room of her own. She likes having neighbors to talk to and a club to join with other kids her age. She doesn’t seem to mind a casserole in place of miner’s lettuce and hard boiled eggs. She’s concerned about whether kids at school will think she’s weird, but she’s willing to take the chance.
Will, though, has an entirely different struggle. It’s disheartening to watch a man so at one with the trees sitting in a sterile office ironically decorated with wallpaper that feature the trees he’s been forced to leave behind. It’s downright heartbreaking to watch him forced into work on a Christmas tree farm, cutting and wrapping trees as decorations. It makes you wonder about our lingering commitment to Christmas trees; might it not be better to go hiking in the woods at Christmastime?
It’s one thing to care for the environment by leaving no trace, but humans are meant to leave a trace on each other. Most of us want to make a difference in the world; most parents want their children to fulfill their potential by using their unique gifts; and we do that in relationship to others.
When Will and Tom encounter the trailer park, Tom enjoys respite. She believes she has found a community of people not so different from her and her dad, people who live lightly on the land, who make or grow what they need to survive. Like the beehives, these people seem to thrive through their togetherness.
Problems arise when people forget that we are meant to live as a global community. Problems like war, which not only break countries and communities, but people–individuals like Will, who used to work well in a team but not so much any more.
Will is broken and, in striving to protect her from all that is broken in the world, he has splintered Tom from the possibility of developing healthy relationships. In love, he has forced her into living out of his brokenness.
As Tom points out, the same thing that is wrong with Will isn’t wrong with her, and therein lies the final struggle: how each will find their way forward to live in relationship with their own self.