Directed by Debra Granik (‘Winter’s Bone’), ‘Leave No Trace’ (2018) is a drama film that revolves around Iraq War Veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), leaving off-grid in the old-growth Forest Park near Portland, Oregon. They lead a minimalist existence, making fire with dry leaves and gathering rainwater. Will and Tom sometimes venture into the city for supplies and Will’s VA-issued benzodiazepines. He sells the latter to fellow veterans. However, their quiet life is suddenly interrupted when a jogger spots Tom and informs the authorities. Soon, park rangers, police, and social services find and temporarily separate them. After ensuring that Tom is safe, social services take her and Will to a Christmas tree farm in rural Oregon, where they can stay in exchange for Will’s work. Although Tom grows to like the place, Will becomes restless and decides to leave.
‘Leave No Trace’ is a poignant commentary on PTSD and homelessness among veterans. Both are real-world issues. If that has made you wonder whether ‘Leave No Trace’ is inspired by actual events, we got you covered.
Is Leave No Trace a True Story?
Yes, ‘Leave No Trace’ is based on a true story. However, the plot underwent several changes before it made it to the screen. So, while the movie is grounded in reality, it differs from the original story to a degree. Granik wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, and it is the cinematic adaptation of American author Peter Rock’s 2009 book ‘My Abandonment,’ which is based on a news report published in 2004 in the Portland newspaper The Oregonian.
The police discovered a Vietnam vet living in a shelter in Forest Park with his daughter. The man was unemployed then, and his only source of money was the $400 disability checks he received every month. The father acquired old encyclopedias to educate his daughter. The authorities didn’t find any sign of physical or sexual abuse on the girl. As depicted in the film, the father was hired at a farm. However, they eventually left the place, and as of December 2018, no one had heard from them. In Rock’s book, 13-year-old Caroline serves as the story’s narrator, but the film doesn’t utilize this particular plot device.
Granik told Deadline in a December 2018 interview that one major source of inspiration while making ‘Leave No Trace’ was the conversation she had with a father and daughter in Oregon that practiced a non-conforming lifestyle. The father told her, “I wanted her [his daughter] to have this one chapter of her life where the woods could be her playground, where nature could be her classroom, where she would learn to read and she’d be getting a lot of the developmental needs met, because I knew that at some point very soon, in her teen years, she’d have the rest of her life to conform. She’d have the entire rest of her life to be wired, have her device vibrating in her pocket, have emails that never go away, for the rest of her life.”
Granik said that she incorporated these sentiments into Will’s character. Some of the key differences between the book and the film are that the latter is set in the present time, and Will is a veteran of the Iraq War. According to Granik, Will’s military background made his survival skills believable.
Granik cited William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and the relationship between Prospero and Miranda while explaining her approach to the story. She also said that Rock told her that he could envision the father reading Henry David Thoreau (‘Walden,’ for instance, a story about embracing a simple life). While approaching the PTSD aspect of Will’s character, Granik claimed that a book called ‘The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,’ by war correspondent and former Marine David J. Morris, helped her immensely. Clearly, ‘Leave No trace’ is based on a true story, though certain aspects were created and added to give the overall narrative a sense of completion.
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