Leave No Trace: The Powerful, Painful Lesson Found in a Beautiful Movie

Leave No Trace: The Powerful, Painful Lesson Found in a Beautiful Movie July 7, 2018
Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace, photo courtesy Bleecker Street

I believe in happy endings.

Most Americans do, I think. We’re optimistic folks, conditioned through our history and culture and yeah, even our movies. We see our heroes ride off into the sunset. We see wrongs righted. We believe every wound can heal, every relationship can mend. Sometimes, our superheroes even come back from the dead.

Maybe it stems from America’s most historically dominant religion, too. Those of us who call ourselves Christians believe that our own Savior came back from the dead. And that miracle gives us hope, too—hope for ourselves, for our loved ones. With grace, the hurting, the fallen, the lost can be saved.

But what if someone doesn’t want to be saved?

I thought about that a lot through the latter stages of Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik’s beautiful, heartbreaking drama (in art-house theaters now).

Will, a troubled veteran(played by Ben Foster) , lives in the Oregon wilderness with his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). You get the feeling that the wilderness has all Tom has ever known. When someone asks Tom if she and her dad are homeless, Tom says no: “They just don’t understand it was our home.”

And for Will, that’s absolutely true. The wilderness, for all its challenges and dangers, is home. It’s only out there, away from people, that Will feels even a semblance of safety and peace.

Every encounter Will has with civilization feels jagged: When he and Tom walk into town, traffic thunders across roadways like tanks. Every conversation feels like a test that Tom is perpetually failing. There’s none of that in the forest. So, just as a child might hide in a closet or cover their head with a protective sheet, Will wraps himself in the emerald folds of nature, only secure in its womblike embrace.

Even then this Eden ain’t perfect: The nightmares, literally, still come. Sometimes, when he thinks Tom’s not looking, Will cradles his head in his hands, a picture of unspoken pain. And Tom’s growing up, too. Will must realize that he can’t keep his little girl in this lifestyle forever, and they both know it. For her, the world outside their leafy cocoon isn’t frightening: It’s comforting. When civilization foists itself upon the two of them, she finds out she kind of enjoys it.

One day, among a small group of off-the-grid eclectics and hippies, she walks her father over to a friend’s beehives to show him the colony. She takes her father’s gloved hand in hers and places it above a buzzing honeycomb.

“You can feel the warmth of the hive,” she says.

Tom can feel the warmth of community. She feels its hum, senses its goodness. Will can only hear the buzz. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, during the creation of Narnia. In the story, the lion Aslan—Lewis’ Christ-like figure—sings the world into existence. But Uncle Andrew, the magician who used dark arts he only dimly understands, can only hear the lion’s roar.

It’s not Will’s fault, really. He’s sick and hurting. We know this from his interviews with psychologists, the newspaper clippings he keeps, the medications he gets but never takes. He never seems to give the folks who want to help him much of a chance.

And as I watched this beautiful, difficult movie—one of the best of the year, I think—I found myself thinking about free will, and how frustrating it can be.

As Christians, we think of free will as a beautiful thing. God loved us so much that He gave us the freedom to love Him back—or not. We’re not compelled to. We choose to.

But when it comes to other people embracing free will against what would seem to be their best interest, it can be really difficult to accept, especially when it’s someone we care for very much.

We all know the frustration. People don’t do what we want them to and, if you’re a controlling type (like me), that’s sometimes a little maddening. We see people make terrible choices. Pick the absolutely wrong people to date or to marry. See them getting into all sorts of stuff that we know is bad for them. (I’m sure plenty of folks would tell me that I’m abusing my free will when it comes to my Mountain Dew habit.)

And when you’re dealing with someone like Will—someone who’s suffering from anxiety and depression, someone who’s hurting a great deal—we sometimes wish they could just turn over their free will over to us. Let us run the show for a while. Keep them safe. Push them into a better place.

But sometimes, that’s just not possible.

The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every four people on the planet suffer from some sort of mental illness or disorder. More than 16.2 million Americans suffer from depression alone in the United States, and the rates are rising. More alarmingly, suicide rates are skyrocketing. It’s now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

Many of us have been touched by mental illness and suicide in some way. I’m no exception. I’ve struggled with depression myself. Someone close to me tried to kill himself just a couple of weeks ago.

When I talk about these things, it’s amazing how many folks have their own stories to share—their own struggles with depression, anxiety and self-worth, their own self-harm or suicide attempts, or how someone they loved killed themselves: A brother. A friend. A daughter. A mother.

We’re a bunch of broken people navigating a broken world, and sometimes it can be hard to make sense of it all. So much pain.

These thoughts were rolling through my mind as I watched this movie—watched as Will struggles to raise his daughter even as he fights his own anxiety and depression. Tom’s not clueless to her dad’s condition, and she grows more aware of it as the movie goes on. When she hears a gunshot in the forest, she fears the worst. She does everything she can to help her dad get better, and maybe begin to find a way to return to some semblance of society. To feel the warmth of the hive.

But you can’t will someone to mental health, really—any more than they can will themselves to it. You can give them all the tools, all the support, all the help you can. You can throw out the life preserver. But in the end, they have to grab it. They have to hold on.

Not so different from our relationship with God, I suppose. He wants to rescue us. But we have to choose it.

One afternoon, Dana—a landlord of sorts for that eclectic off-the-grid community—leads Tom into the nearby woods, a collection of groceries in tow. She puts the groceries in a waterproof bag and hangs it on a tree.

“[I] Leave this out for someone who lives out in the woods,” she tells Tom. She’s done the same thing for decades. And even though she’s not seen the guy for years, Dana knows he’s still alive. “When I come back, the bag is always empty.”

And maybe there’s a lesson in there for us, too.

We can’t make someone get better. We can’t make someone take the necessary steps toward healing and wholeness. As much as we’d like to fix everything, we can’t.

But we can be there, in whatever way we’re allowed to be. Even if it means hanging food on a tree, we can be there. Let them know they’re not alone. And maybe some day, we’ll see them again, walking home. Walking, at last, into a happy ending.

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