Family bonds prevail in ‘Leave No Trace’

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster play a daughter and father living off the grid outside Portland, Ore., in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace.”
Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster play a daughter and father living off the grid outside Portland, Ore., in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace.”

CAMBRIDGE — Perhaps everyone at some time has had the fantasy of cutting all ties and disappearing off the grid. 

Will (Ben Foster), a veteran with PTSD, and teenage Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), the father and daughter in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” make that dream a reality, at least for a while. They have been living in tents in a huge forest preserve outside of Portland, Ore., foraging for food, always on the move to avoid being picked up for trespassing by the police, with only a few essential tools. Instead of a phone, Tom has nature and a battered old encyclopedia to keep herself occupied.

“We’re just finding out how many ones and zeroes the human hard drive can be bombarded with in this digital era,” said Granik, at the Porter Square Hotel last April. She was in town promoting the film, which was screening at the Independent Film Festival Boston. “These technological and cultural changes came on our brains tsunami-like. There are people who are wondering — and this is true of every cycle in culture — might I want to opt out?”


Granik is a Cambridge native and Brandeis graduate whose “Winter’s Bone” (2010) established Jennifer Lawrence as a star. McKenzie is already being touted as a Lawrence-like discovery. Granik got the project from producer and Emerson College professor Linda Reisman, who developed it from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, “My Abandonment.”

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Rock’s book is based on the true story of a father and daughter who had been living off the land for years in Portland’s Forest Park. In 2004 they were found by the authorities, who set them up in a nice place at a horse farm. 

It seemed a feel-good story with a happy ending. But a few months later the two disappeared, apparently overwhelmed by their exposure to the digitalized culture they had reentered. They haven’t been seen since.

For Granik, whose “Winter’s Bone” is set in a meticulously detailed backwoods Ozarks community in Missouri, this population of outsiders, many of them veterans who have opted out of society to live alone or in loose settlements, held great fascination. 

“The Pacific Northwest is not a region I know well but I’m drawn to it,” she said. “It was anthropologically intriguing to understand Portland. As a temperate rain forest, livable almost all year round, that part of the country, including Seattle and northern California, has a huge inflow of non-conforming Americans. They don’t want to play the stock market. They don’t want material wealth. Some don’t even want a place in the economy [because] it feels like a death sentence.”


Granik was also intrigued by how these people are able to survive without the benefits of so-called civilized society. “I like articulating methodology,” she said. “I’m a big process person. I like seeing actual details about how people do things. The book describes the methods of how they made their camp, how they survived, how they remained undetected, and how they went into town and avoid being spotted.”

If you’re interested in how to light a fire without matches, or pick edible mushrooms or plants, or collect rainwater for drinking, or even elude the law, this film offers useful tips.

As acutely observed as it is in depicting this outsider lifestyle and elucidating the impulse to leave modern life behind, “Leave No Trace” is even more intent on examining that fundamental social unit, the family.

“I think one of the things that drew us was not only interest in people who choose to live differently, but this very unique father and daughter kinship where this young girl is coming into her own,” said Reisman on the phone from her Brookline home. “There is a point in the story where Tom is becoming more independent, is thinking more about living with ‘acceptable’ society. Maybe she wants to go to school, to make friends. And her father is struggling to make the adjustment. I think it is as much an exploration of two people who are very close and choose to live differently and a young girl’s coming of age as it is a look into why people are alienated by society.”

Nor is the society depicted all that alienating. Unlike Rock’s novel, or “Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace” is full of nice people. Everyone seems eager to help out. Even the government officials who pluck Will and Tom from their Crusoe-like idyllic existence have their best interests at heart. At one point the two are welcomed by a community of outsiders who offer them aid and comfort and a place to stay. What has inspired Granik’s newfound optimism and faith in human nature?


“What happened was Trump came in and I thought: My goodness, I want to tell a story with no villains!” she said. “I wanted to show Americans who actually care for and want to do right by each other.”

Peter Keough can be reached at