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The brokenness of life is almost unbearable in Leave No Trace, a movie inspired by a true story. Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in the woods of a large public park near Portland, Ore., hiding from discovery by leaving few traces of their existence. They gather mushrooms, drink rainwater, and plant carefully disguised gardens in the lush forest. Will and Tom trek into town periodically, cashing Dad’s disability checks and selling his VA-supplied medications to other veterans.
Viewers soon discover why these two live away from the world. Will suffers from PTSD, and his nights are full of painful memories of his military service. Tom helps her dad cope with these flashbacks, calling him back to the present and his responsibility to care for her. Will ensures Tom is well-educated: She learns from encyclopedias, and from him.
One day, a jogger spots Tom and reports a young girl living in the woods. Will and Tom have practiced how to hide quickly, but police dogs hunt them down, and authorities remove the family from the park. In Tom’s first encounter with the outside world, we witness the kindness of strangers, a pattern throughout the film.
Social workers provide Will and Tom with a home on a Christmas tree farm, and for a while all seems well. Tom quickly settles in, makes friends, and enjoys a more normal life. Will works, and they attend church. But Will can’t bear this settled life for long. He insists they move on, away from people and away from outside relationships. Yet Tom resists a return to isolation.
It’s unclear what happened to the real-life father and daughter who inspired the story. The film suggests that despite the hospitality and love shown by so many, Will cannot forget the evil of this world and plunges deeper into despair. Without the redeeming work of Christ, this is true for us all.