Leave No Trace is the story of an emotionally damaged veteran Ben and his teenage daughter Tom (the actress’s name is Thomasin; I assume that’s the character’s name too, though I don’t remember her full name ever being used).
At the opening of the film, the two are living in survivalist fashion in a national park or state park in Oregon. I don’t think it’s ever specified which one, but it’s close enough to Portland that when they need supplies they can take a long walk and reach the outermost edge of the metropolitan area where public transportation extends. (I see a few possibilities on the map, including Linnton Park or Forest Park, but it also may be a totally fictional park.)
While certainly the majority of the time they are alone with only each other, they don’t live a completely hermitlike existence bereft of human contact. As mentioned, they regularly go into a major city to obtain supplies. They also go to some veterans services office there, one purpose, perhaps the sole purpose, of which is to obtain drugs for Ben to help him with his emotional problems, which he turns around and sells instead of taking (presumably because he either knows they do him no good, or knows that worse yet they are addictive or have some other deleterious effect on him).
They also interact with the people in the little makeshift camp in the park where he sells his drugs. There are also loggers routinely nearby where they live, though they avoid interacting with them.
So their living arrangement kind of has a middle-of-nowhere isolation feel to it, and kind of not. And it’s not like they have no ability to function with people, as you might expect of folks who get little or no socialization. Ben comes across as reserved but not to some creepy extreme, and Tom too is a little quiet but would not stand out as socially inept or painfully shy.
In most respects, one can infer that Ben has done an admirable job raising his daughter. She’s actually a pretty together kid. He hasn’t neglected her book learning; she’s above average or better at reading and writing and such. Not surprisingly she has advanced Boy Scout or pioneer type skills for dealing with the elements and surviving outdoors. As mentioned, her socialization skills are not atrocious; she’s reasonably comfortable dealing with people.
He treats her with respect as pretty close to an equal partner in meeting the challenges that come with their unorthodox lifestyle, which speaks to me since I am a strong believer in not paternalistically treating children substantially differently from how one treats adults. On the whole, if anything she comes across as more mature and more responsible than the typical person her age.
I mean, certainly there’s a lot more to talk about—and I will do so—as far as whether Ben, in raising his daughter largely outside of conventional society, has been abusive or negligent in depriving her of a “normal” childhood, but she doesn’t appear to be particularly damaged. I assume she is in better shape than most kids in some ways and in worse shape in others due to her odd upbringing, but I would say that overall if anything she’s in better shape.
Early in the movie Ben and Tom are captured by law enforcement, and so come under the power of social services. It’s not so much a matter of their having broken the law—I believe about the most criminal thing they’ve done is violate the rules about only being allowed to camp out overnight in a national or state park for a finite number of days and with a permit, which is awfully penny ante stuff—as having possibly not met the legal requirements of raising a child, as far as education and such.
I’m not clear, though, just how much authority these government social workers have over them, and it’s possible Ben and Tom themselves don’t know. (Well, almost certainly Tom wouldn’t know, but it’s possible Ben is uncertain or is operating under false assumptions as well.) Probably the biggest issue is that Tom is not, and never has been, enrolled in school. But home schooling is very common, and I would think the whole thing could be sidestepped if Ben just filled out the right paperwork or whatever to declare that Tom is being home schooled, especially since they’ve tested her and found her to be above grade level in her academics.
So I would think they are, or after jumping through a modest number of hoops could become, free to walk away and live however they want, including back in the woods somewhere, though preferably on land that doesn’t have some rule against camping out for an extended period.
But instead they move into a modest farm house provided by a local old gent who heard about their situation on the news and felt moved to help, and when they do subsequently leave they don’t do so openly as if they’ve simply decided to live elsewhere, but as an escape as if the government has decreed that they have to live there. So either they’re being coerced by the government to rejoin society, or at least they’re under the impression that they are.
As fugitives or pseudo-fugitives, they return to the woods, but almost immediately Ben is seriously injured in a fall. They are taken in by some people in a trailer park on the outskirts of the woods, and soon have a little trailer of their own to stay in.
So we see them living in three main environments. First it’s just the two of them out in the woods, exercising all their wilderness survival skills, sleeping in a tent, making a fire every night, etc. Then they’re in a farmhouse in a rural or semi-rural area, where the old man who made the house available to them also gives Ben some work helping on his Christmas tree farm, and Tom contemplates entering school for the first time in her life and befriends a local boy who introduces her to such things as 4-H and FFA. Then there’s the trailer park out in the sticks where Ben is mostly recuperating from a serious leg injury and Tom is increasingly warming to the idea of being part of a larger community than just her and her dad, which, by the way, is a community that includes plenty of veterans, including emotionally damaged veterans, and people who are quite aware of and sympathetic toward the problems of veterans.
The film provokes many, many intriguing questions and thoughts. Among them: What are the pros and cons of Ben and Tom’s unconventional life in the woods compared to the more conventional life an American single father and daughter might otherwise have? Even if Ben has the right to choose such an unconventional life for himself, is he wronging Tom by choosing it for her as well? Is the state, through its law enforcement officers and social workers, doing the right thing by rescuing Ben and Tom, or at least Tom, or is it paternalistically violating Ben and Tom’s liberty rights to live as they choose?
Why is Ben no longer able to live a conventional life around people other than his daughter, or at least why is it uncomfortable enough for him that he’d prefer to avoid doing so? Could he be “cured” of that, with medication or therapy or whatever? Might he decide to force himself to accept a return to normal society because he is persuaded that it would be best for Tom even if not for him, and is he capable of doing this even if he does so decide? Will his being back amongst people cause him at some point to flip out—to become violent, commit suicide, become a dope addict, have a nervous breakdown, have to be institutionalized, whatever?
Clearly the more time Tom spends in the second and third environments described above, the more comfortable she is becoming with being back in “the world,” and indeed the more she is developing a desire to possibly remain permanently in it and more fully explore it, even as her love for and attachment to her father shows no sign of waning; is this evidence that Ben has indeed abused and deprived her by keeping her away from that world for all these years, or is she just getting sucked into something that is superficially appealing but ultimately inferior to their life in the woods, the way people get tempted into crack cocaine addiction or living a materialistic life of chasing after flashy baubles and passing fads? As the tension builds between her desire to stick with her dad in his withdrawal from society and her desire to experience a normal life and see what society has to offer her, and assuming he proves unable or unwilling to make the sacrifice of remaining in conventional society himself and thereby solve the problem for her, will she opt for loyalty to her dad or for creating a life of her own without him? Assuming choosing society and normality over her dad is in fact more in her self-interest, might she have any actual duty to prioritize her love for her father over her own future well-being, and make this sacrifice for him the way we sometimes are called upon to make sacrifices for those we love? Or is that a crazy idea, that there are circumstances where the morally right thing to do is for a child to sacrifice for an adult?
Would he even be able to function back in the wild by himself? That is, does his emotional stability depend on just separating from society like that, or does it by now also depend on having Tom around full time to share his life with? I mean, there’s being alone, and there’s really being alone.
Will the conflicts developing in their preferences and interests lead to their relationship becoming an antagonistic one, or will they always remain aware of their love for each other and try to amicably work out the least bad solution to the situation they find themselves in?
And of course for so many of these questions, one can step back and ask them more broadly of parent-child relationships in general, and human relationships in general. As extraordinarily uncommon as this specific situation is, surely there are at least somewhat analogous situations that arise all the time in life, where we must decide how much leeway parents should have in raising their children however they choose and when the state can or should step in, when parents need to be willing to let go of their children and allow them to make their own way in the world, etc.
One thing that struck me is how good Ben is at keeping his hurt bottled up. I mean, you can infer he’s messed up by the very fact of his wanting to be off away from society and to raise his daughter there, but in terms of his immediate, visible behavior, it really doesn’t manifest that he’s all that messed up.
He’s perfectly fine with Tom. Even with other people, though he tends to be taciturn, he mostly interacts with them in a sane, calm way that doesn’t betray much discomfort or hostility concerning them. He isn’t wild-eyed, he doesn’t mutter to himself, he doesn’t shake uncontrollably, he doesn’t speak incoherently, he doesn’t have a hair-trigger temper, he doesn’t do wildly socially inappropriate things. He acts pretty much like a normal guy in most respects.
He does seem a bit nonplussed in the presence of helicopters, but that quickly passes. In one scene he wakes up during the night a little shaken, but Tom talks him down from it pretty easily. The closest he comes to losing it is probably when he is taking a psychological test administered by one of the social workers that asks hundreds of yes/no questions about things a person might experience or feel that could indicate post-traumatic stress syndrome or other such damage. (It’s an infuriating test, by the way, because virtually none of the questions can in fact be adequately answered with a simple yes or no. My answers would have all been things like “Maybe,” “Sort of,” “Sometimes,” “It depends what you mean by that,” “I’d lean toward yes, but it’s not a clear yes,” “I have, but not as much lately,” etc.) Even there it’s not like he explodes, and pretty quickly he’s back to his usual controlled self.
Especially in the second half of Leave No Trace, I found myself thinking about the 1988 Sydney Lumet movie Running on Empty, which is a story about a radical couple living as fugitives trying to raise their children while periodically having to pull up stakes with virtually no warning and frantically flee, come up with new fake identities, and start over again in some new community. Especially I thought about the climactic scene late in the movie when the father (Judd Hirsch) finds the strength to free his teenage son (River Phoenix) from any obligation to remain with them in their fugitive life, and thereby releases him into the world to seek his fortune, knowing that he may never be a significant part of their lives again. In effect, he was recognizing that he and his wife’s burden had over time become the family’s burden, and here he was saying, no, really it’s on us, and our kids shouldn’t have to live this way and restrict their own development to keep the family together. And I wondered if this movie was drifting toward a similar outcome, where Ben would tell Tom that it is impossible for him to do anything other than live apart from society, but that as much as it will initially hurt both of them, he has to release her into the world to make her own choices and build her own life rather than remain with him. (For spoiler reasons, I won’t say just how close this movie comes to ending that way.)
Another thought that occurred to me during the movie is that as a society we’re a lot more accepting of nonconformity, including in an area like child raising, if it’s a whole community that’s outside the mainstream rather than an individual, or if it’s for religious motives rather than for other reasons.
Or better yet, both. If it’s the Amish, or some Native American tribe, living in some oddball way, and defending it on the basis of it being their traditional lifestyle and motivated by their spiritual beliefs, there tends to be little if any sentiment for forcing them into the mainstream, or taking away their kids if they won’t conform. But if it’s just some dude, then we’re apt to dismiss him as crazy or mentally ill and needing help, and to rescue his children from him so that they at least can live a normal life.
I have to say, though, that I tend not to see it that way. I try to judge such things on their merits, and I don’t automatically give more respect to life choices that are normal relative to some other “culture,” and even less so am I apt to allow more leeway to life choices that are motivated by what some group claims their invisible friend has told them they’re supposed to do.
In general, I’m more sympathetic toward nonconformists than not, and indeed consider myself to be a proud nonconformist. But I’m equally or more sympathetic toward individuals who run contrary to whatever is the dominant, mainstream culture than I am toward groups that do. I generally want people to have a huge amount of liberty to live their life as they choose to live it.
Certainly it gets trickier when we’re talking about child raising, which involves making choices for people who aren’t fully able to make their own choices. (Though as far as that goes, I’m in favor of allowing children a lot more autonomy than most people are.) I mean, it’s your business if you want to go off and live in some bizarre fashion that most people think is kooky, but I understand why people are more alarmed, and think themselves more justified in intervening, when you bring your children around the bend with you.
I have a little different take on that, though, which stems from my nonconformity. I’m much more inclined than most people to think that our “normal” ways of doing things, including raising children, are decidedly fucked up. Not just imperfect, not just in need of some incremental change here and there, but desperately in need of a full-on paradigm shift.
So, yes, it gives me pause when some guy raises a child out in the woods, with very little in the way of modern conveniences, having to rough it, and experiencing no more than minimal, infrequent interaction with anyone other than himself throughout her childhood. That’s weird, and I would think could damage a child significantly. But it gives me as much or more pause, and I’m even more convinced it damages children significantly, that people raise their kids in an environment where people swear fealty to the aforementioned invisible friend, regard it as a duty to spend a portion of their lives wearing a uniform and following orders from a person wearing a differently decorated uniform to go kill total strangers en masse, feel grateful for the opportunity to spend decades performing work that they don’t like and that perverts their ethics and kills their spirit so that they can have more resources with which to acquire more and more useless material goods, or send their children into special buildings several hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, throughout their childhood to learn to obediently sit in rows of desks having every iota of liberty, curiosity, creativity, and individuality crushed out of them. And that stuff is all totally normal.
So in evaluating child raising decisions, I would seek to understand their merits, and not judge them based on whether they happen to currently be mainstream or not, because a heck of a lot of mainstream stuff is frankly monstrous.
One very important factor I’d look at is whether, when the children do become old enough to make their own decisions, they have the liberty to choose for or against remaining on the path their parents have raised them on, and, crucially, whether they have had instilled within them the knowledge, critical thinking skills, and self-confidence to make such decisions wisely. (By that measure, while no child raising methodology is perfect, the evidence indicates that Ben, weirdo or not, has done a far better job than the majority of parents.)
There are several more things I could go into it about this movie, or about what it caused me to think about, but I’ll mention just one more thing that came to my mind watching it.
It kind of stacks the deck in influencing Tom toward acceptance of the society she has been largely kept apart from her whole life, in that pretty much everybody they encounter in the movie is unfailingly nice to them.
I mean, they’re temporarily placed in an adversarial relationship with certain people, such as those who chase them down and capture them in the woods, but even those folks are not acting out of hostile motives or seeking to hurt them.
But then throughout the remainder of the movie, they seem to only encounter people who give them places to live free, manifest sympathy toward traumatized veterans, offer them friendship, give them work, treat them with respect, give them rides when they’re hitchhiking, tend to their injuries, etc.
Ben is the last person to ever want to rely on the kindness of strangers, but they certainly receive plenty of it anyway. And to his credit he acknowledges it. He’s not some bitter, paranoid guy who spins it all into some conspiracy to harm him and his daughter. He thanks people, he agrees with Tom when she points out how good someone has been to them. It doesn’t change his inability to live comfortably surrounded by them, but it’s not like he hates people or has convinced himself that they’re all enemies who wish him ill.
No wonder Tom thinks this world might be pretty OK after all, and not something to remain apart from; it seems to be filled with really, really nice people.
You can make a case that the movie seriously downplays how difficult an adjustment she’d have to make to a world of gangs, identity thieves, crooked cops, angry drunks, horny guys skilled at manipulating women into sex, dishonest politicians, amoral corporations spreading climate change denialism, exploitative employers, and all the rest.
Anyway, I found Leave No Trace slow at times, and not as fully engaging throughout as the best movies, but it raises many, many important issues and for the most part explores them in an intelligent way that led me to want to further think them through after leaving the theater. This is a winner.