Follow TV Tropes


Film / Leave No Trace

Go To

Leave No Trace is a 2018 American drama film directed by Debra Granik, with a script co-written by her and Anne Rossellini, based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock. It is Granik's first scripted film since 2010's Winter's Bone, although she had directed the documentary Stray Dog in the interim.

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in a large public park in Portland, Oregon, carrying only barebones camping equipment and only going into the city for essentials when they absolutely have to; for cash, Will sells his VA-provided medications to a fellow veteran. Their goal is to avoid notice as much as possible. Nonetheless, a jogger spots them and notifies the authorities. They are soon assigned to live on a Christmas tree farm operated by Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober), who is moved by Will's military service to offer them housing and give Will a job. Will finds the structure on the farm suffocating, and soon the pair are on the run again. Their travels eventually bring them to an RV community in Washington state, a kind of utopian society outside of society.


Leave No Trace was universally acclaimed by critics, attaining a 100% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 241 positive reviews (as of 31 October, 2021), making it the most-reviewed film with a 100% rating. While it wasn't nominated for any Academy Awards the National Board of Review did name it one of the Top Ten Independent Films of the year and recognized McKenzie as Breakout Performance.


  • Adorably Precocious Child: Tom is a teenager but she has been taught by her father to be extremely self sufficient. She can cook her own food and survive in the wilderness. Despite being hardened to the elements, she is still a cute and innocent child.
  • Adult Fear: Quite a few moments of this for Will.
    • Will clearly becomes more aware throughout the film that Tom is beginning to grow in a different direction away from him as she socializes more, but due to his PTSD-driven fear of the wider world he's unable to do anything about it. When she finally snaps at him that what's wrong with him isn't wrong with her, he can only muster a sad "I know" in response. Not long after, the two go their separate ways, something he's visibly crushed by.
      • The original script plays it even more heartbreakingly, with Will realising Tom will stay long before she does, and making sure the trailer park denizens will look after her when he's gone.
    • Advertisement:
    • The scene at their new house where Will, having no idea Tom is meeting a new friend and bonding over his rabbits and no way to contact her, is reduced to yelling for her into the night. While the audience knows she's safe, it's a familiar scene for any parent who suddenly has no idea where their child has gone.
    • Even more sobering is the scene where they trek through the Washington forest and the storm sets in and an exhausted Tom simply can't go on. She's left asking her father if they're going to freeze in the night, something he has no answer or reassurance for. While they don't, and find a cabin to protect them from the elements, it's luck rather than any planning from Will.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Tom has found a community to belong to so that she can grow as a person, but Will is unable to adapt to this life and returns to live in the woods alone. It's implied that while he won't be in her life as much, the two will see each other again.
  • Cool Old Lady: Dale, the Reasonable Authority Figure leader of the trailer park community who helps Will and Tom out on Tom's word alone. There's also the sweet beekeeper who teaches Tom the ways of the hive.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Will and Tom's unplanned flight to Washington. Yes, it offers a multitude of hiding places, but they're now fugitives, without the camping equipment they had earlier and no way to get more without alerting the authorities to where they are. They almost freeze during a storm (with Tom even asking if they'll die in the night) and even though they find a cabin to hide out in it's still unfamiliar territory they're not used to, with Will consequently taking a nasty fall that could easily have crippled or killed him.
  • Dr. Feelgood: In a sense, Will fills this role for the other veterans living in the woods. He goes and procures meds from the VA Hospital which he then sells to them for a profit, enabling him to buy food and supplies if need be.
  • The Hermit: Will and Tom's lifestyle is very close to this, only rarely venturing into Portland when they either need essential supplies or when Will needs to pick up his medication to sell on.
  • Homeschooled Kids: Will has taught Tom as they've lived together in the forest, leading her to be academically more advanced than other kids her own age. That said, as Tom's social worker Jean points out, school is also about the social element - something Tom sorely lacks.
  • I Am Not My Father: Tom eventually comes to understand that her father's PTSD and fear of living in civilisation will leave them constantly being The Hermit, something she doesn't want to do after finding belonging in the community. This eventually leads to the two tearfully going their own ways at the end. Unusually, she doesn't blame him for it, saying she knows he'd stay if he could.
    Tom: These people, they're not that different from us.
    Will: Yes, they've been very good to us, but we have to -
    Tom: You! You need. Not me. Same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me.
    Will: [sadly] I know.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: How Tom increasingly feels as the movie goes on, encountering potential friends she's comfortable with and a community she feels at home in. It eventually drives her to stay behind when Will leaves, unable to commit to his nomadic way of living any more.
  • The Medic: Larry is a former U.S. Army medic who patches up Will after his accident. He also appears to suffer from PTSD as he has a service dog, though he is clearly much better adjusted than Will is.
  • Missing Mom: Tom asks Will what her mother's favorite color was. The question implies that it's just been the two of them for as long as she can remember.
  • Mistaken for Pedophile: Played for Drama. At one point Will and Tom attempt to catch a ride with a trucker heading north, and before he agrees he requests to speak to Tom privately, assuring her that if there's anything wrong she can tell him and relaxing only when she identifies him repeatedly as her father. Given the situation - a scruffy, homeless-looking man who seems constantly on-edge and doesn't speak much with a quiet teenage girl - it's easy to understand his suspicions.
  • Mundane Object Amazement: Tom is fascinated by the Christian dancing troupe she sees at the tree community's church, especially their ribbon sticks. Not long after, Will teaches her to ride a bike for the first time after their social worker brings one, something both are elated by.
  • No Antagonist: No one really mistreats Will or Tom, and most people they meet seem to want to help them (See also Reasonable Authority Figure). It just doesn't work out.
  • No Social Skills: Will lacks them because of his wartime trauma and the avoidant philosophy he's adopted. Tom is homeschooled, and hasn't had significant interaction with people beyond her father.
  • The Patient Has Left the Building: Will takes off again at the end, this time alone, even though his leg hasn't finished healing.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Jean and James, the social workers for Tom and Will, respectively, both demonstrate goodwill and try to find an arrangement that works for them instead of splitting them up.
    • Mr. Walters could probably get good publicity out of hiring a homeless veteran, but genuinely seems to like Will as well.
    • The trailer park owner accepts Tom's need to not take Will to the hospital on her word alone, arranges medical help from a veteran friend and increasingly takes the time to help out Tom as she socializes more. She later only takes a single note as a deposit when Tom tries to rent their trailer long-term, diplomatically pointing out that she's not going to rip them off.
    • Will himself; while he uproots Tom socially several times it's less being a Principles Zealot and more his traumatic experiences leaving him unable to function in that world. He's as understanding as possible about Tom's increasing independence, and comes to realise that his traumatic experiences don't define his daughter as well. When Tom chooses to stay in the trailer community near the end, he's devastated but immediately accepting of her going her own way.
  • The Runaway: A teen runaway boards the same long distance bus as Will and Tom after they leave the farm, and police sweep it and find her. The experience spooks Will so much that he and Tom don't get back on at the next stop.
  • Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: Downplayed compared to something like the similarly themed Captain Fantastic but still present; Tom is well-versed in survival skills and academically advanced for her age, but lacking in social skills around other people.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Will experiences undigested trauma from the action he saw overseas (probably Afghanistan or Iraq, given the contemporary setting). The sound of helicopters makes him notably agitated, and the sound even haunts his dreams. Larry, the former army medic who patches up Will's leg at the RV park, speaks of bad war experiences as well and has a service dog he briefly lends Will.
  • Silence Is Golden: The film has a musical score, but it's minimal and drops out for some scenes. It's also remarkably light on dialogue - Word of God has it that Ben Foster and the director removed much of it to increase the sense of realism.
  • Trauma Button: The sound of helicopters seems to be Will's, apparently bringing back bad memories of his wartime experiences.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: