Directed by: Debra Granki Written by: Anne Rosselini
Based on My Abandonment: by Peter Rock
I don’t know if there’s a name for a movie made with two largely distinct motives. Leave No Trace is one such movie. It is on, the one hand, a piece of scenic exploration that leads its characters from place to place, unapologetic when potential plot points are left unresolved. On the other hand it is a social film, an exploration of a, one could say politicized, mental illness. These two elements of the film are not disconnected as the mental illness of one of the characters explains their constant movement. Nonetheless, there’s a disunity in the film’s two underlying traits. Some version of Leave No Trace still would have been made even if mental illness wasn’t the driving force behind its plot, and similarly, its message about mental illness is too important not to have eventually been the subject of one film or another.
Note, I have not as of yet described Leave No Trace as a nature movie. Those who’ve seen its trailer or movie poster, perhaps even those who have simply heard its title, may be surprised by this omission. Leave No Trace can certainly be called a nature movie, however it’s one that breaks the rules of the genre, so much so that it’s probably safer to avoid labelling it a nature movie altogether. I would avoid this absolutist position and argue it is a nature movie in so far as it explores the concept of “nature” as something separate from “humanity” and hints at the question of what it means to go back to nature. Another positive, from my perspective, is that it is one of the few nature/survival movies I’ve ever seen that does not depict the killing of animals.
The quality of subverting expectations has notably been attributed to The Last Jedi. Other recent films that fit the description include Sorry to Bother You (in terms of its absurdity) and Mother! (in terms of the ridiculous degree to which it intensifies). All of these films, however, are science fiction works and rife with vicious energy. As I left Leave No Trace I was unsure as to whether subverting expectations works in a film where the subversive moments are all realistic and gently stated. It certainly made for an interesting work, but it also left me with an ambiguous feeling of calm unease.
The subversion of expectations continues up until Leave No Trace’s final moment; a moment when the film’s mental illness theme is really brought to the forefront. It is an opaque scene when a seemingly drastic, divisive and heartbreaking decision is made, but the characters involved handle it cooly. Perhaps this scene was a revolutionary imagining of human social potential: one critic hailed the film as one in which “compassion fills every frame” and I think they might be on to something. In my critique of The Light Between Oceans, I asked why movies had to rely on the trope of characters refusing to understand each other (a trope we should be trying to overcome in our day to day interactions), and in its conclusion Leave No Trace indeed suggests its possible for people with radically different world views to accept each other.
Still, part of me was left frustrated by this application of the trend of indie-movie-ending-ambiguously. I agree, admitting ignorance can be more powerful, empathetic, and intellectually rigorous then coming forward with more blatant, but forced analysis. Nonetheless, since Leave No Trace dealt with a particular mental illness and was clearly trying to teach something about it, it’s refusal to be more lucid about the affected character left me feeling something was missing.
Even if Leave No Trace falls a bit short as an-issue movie, it’s aesthetic motif is absolutely on point. The film shows us hidden campsites, Portland transit, the christmas tree industry and a youth agricultural fair to name a few things. While logically connected, the film’s locations nonetheless come across as individually inspired choices.
In short, Leave No Trace is a solid, artistic film which in retrospect has a lot of traits (its imagining of human and interspecies relationships, its breaks with cliche, etc) that speak to me as an individual viewer. I suspect viewers who are particularly passionate about the survival genre and stories of parent-child relationships should find this film and its radical empathy even more captivating than I did.