If you lived in the Pacific Northwest in 2004, you remember it: The discovery that, for years, a father and daughter had been living in Portland's Forest Park in an undetected campsite. They were eventually found and housed by the authorities, but soon disappeared again.
The story inspired a novel, My Abandonment, written by Reed College creative writing professor Peter Rock, and that book has been adapted into a compassionate, graceful movie by Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik.
The father and daughter in Leave No Trace—played by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie—aren’t meant to be stand-ins for the actual people, and the movie’s plot doesn’t precisely follow real-life events. But everything else about Leave No Trace feels entirely authentic, from its patient rendering of life in the pair’s urban-adjacent campsite to the way it shows how a parent and child are able to communicate without words.
Foster is excellent as Will, a veteran coping with PTSD by getting as far as he can from the disturbing elements of civilization while also doing his best to provide for his daughter. But the movie belongs to McKenzie, whose extraordinary performance as daughter Tom is heartbreaking, inspiring, and unforgettable.
When we meet Tom, she’s perfectly happy to live in the woods with her dad. After their discovery and relocation, though, her careful thirst for friendship becomes the movie’s quiet refrain. She loves her dad and doesn’t want to betray him, but can’t help her normal, natural craving for community.
The movie tells us all this without explicitly putting any of it into dialogue; Leave No Trace’s best moments are when Granik lets McKenzie’s expressive eyes do the heavy lifting. It’s a quintessential Northwest story, and one that feels especially connected to this moment, as we struggle to find homes for all the people who’ve ended up in this corner of the world.