Leave No Trace (2018)
Written & Directed by Deborah Granik
PTSD is a quicksand nightmare, especially if the person afflicted by it doesn’t have a support system or rejects the support available. Too often, American culture tells people to tough out mental illness which is entirely unrealistic. The trauma of conditions like PTSD is also infectious, particularly on the children of those with the disease. As a schoolteacher, I often have a heartbreaking front row seat of seeing how the conflicts and challenges of the parents are visited upon their children. Some of the most deeply affected are veterans, returning home to a nation that has no limit to cheering to send off soldiers but is awkwardly silent with receiving them back home. So many of these stories end with suicide because a person is told they must be firm but simply doesn’t possess the ability to push through such a devastating condition.
Deborah Granik hasn’t directed a narrative film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone. She broke her near decade long absence from the film genre (she has made some documentary pieces) with this portrait of a teenage girl struggling with a father who can’t overcome the phantoms of war. Tom lives with her father, Will in a public park in Portland, Oregon. They rarely go into the city, only to spend some of her father’s military pay for food and supplies, but also to fill Will’s prescriptions so they can sell them to a fellow vet who deals out of the park. Will is rattled out of his sleep by the sounds of helicopters and gunfire, remnants of his time in the service. Eventually, Tom and Will are found, and social services try to find a home and employment for them, with the intent of getting the family to comply with what is considered a decent standard of living. But that standard is something Will finds oppressive, the walls closing in on him at all moments.
Just like with Winter’s Bone Granik is master of shooting her setting, in this case, the thick, lush green of the Pacific Northwest. The most peaceful and also harrowing moments occur in the wilderness, it starts as a place of comfort because Tom has had the external world veiled for her. Once she re-enters society with her father, the role of the open wilderness becomes a dark and dangerous place for Tom. Her relationship with her father schisms when Tom finds a warm place with other people, and Will continues to withdraw into his shell. It’s a massive coming of age story but one that is deeply relevant.
We can easily replace Will’s status as a veteran with a survivor of abuse or a person struggling with drug addiction, even simply a person with chronic depression. The urge to withdraw is so strong because you feel shame about your pain. It’s important to note how dissonant the standard way of living feels to Will. He’s put through a computer quiz at a social services job assignment program and can’t comprehend some of the questions put forward. He’s put up in a small house on the property of a Christmas tree farm, which also provides him with a job. His work is to help fuel a nostalgia of Western culture, preserve the dream of the concept of Christmas for consumers. Will complies with an invitation to the church by his employer/landlord, telling Tom he went because he was expected to go.
The story of Will hints at a tragic ending, one we won’t get to see. Instead, Tom’s life is one with possibility, but it becomes clear it won’t become that as long as she goes along with whatever Will decides. At various moments in the film, she makes connections with a boy raising rabbits for 4-H, a veteran medic who has a therapy dog, and an RV camp landlord who leaves supplies for homeless people in the woods. Tom feels a pull towards people who take care of others, mainly because that is the role she’s held with her father. Tom may become a nurse or social worker, shaped by her experiences in childhood, there’s no doubt she will be someone who tries to save those like her father, even if she can’t save him.
Leave No Trace is a vital, relevant picture. It takes on the issue of mental illness sensitively and thoughtfully, continuing the beautiful work of Deborah Granik. She has an eye and a heart for people living on the margins, the homeless and poor, and wants to shine a light on their struggles, showcasing the beauty and the tragedy of their lives.