LJane and Kimberly look past the obvious in Leave No Trace to see a girl evolving toward womanhood, becoming neither prey nor pawn, and using her own perspective to survive and thrive.
JAS: On the surface, a PTSD Iraq war veteran father who has retreated into the woods with his blossoming teen-age daughter sees the world as no place for either of them and fully expects his daughter to happily adapt to a life off the grid. But his daughter is developing a feminine capacity for the imagination, empathy and wits to live in the real world. We’re left to wonder what will happen as it becomes clear that father and daughter are headed for conflict.
What truly interested me was the Leave No Trace portrayal of a girl’s natural, growing awareness and ability to live in two realities. It’s like a refreshing insight into a heroine’s journey, a feminine odyssey, of awakening. We can see Tom (who is no tomboy) go beyond her highly merged subjective reality with her father as she develops a more sophisticated one in which she sees herself as a part of a much larger picture.
KN: Tom’s living in two realities immediately affected me, and her amazing ability to live in both. It made me realize that when one is not nurtured in a healthy way by emotionally stable parents they are kind of like pure babes in the woods, left to their own devices of discovery and knowledge, bound by experience more than by teaching. Her awareness of this is incredible, she’s inherently connected to her core that has been left untainted by proper instruction and instead must rely on her day-by-day experience to direct her journey.
JAS: As her ability to simultaneously experience the inner and outer grows, she’s able to do what we may think is going to be impossible. She sidesteps force and rejection with her father. She makes the separation empathetically in a scene where she makes clear to him that she loves him but can’t live in his reality. I was drawn to take note of the steps of her awakening. Her father is so wounded, so limited, so unable to parent her through her transition to womanhood. And yet she proceeds from an organic desire to find a place for her self, to find what lies beyond the woods.
It was this natural, not hyped portrayal of a girl developing into a grounded feminine power that I thought was so unusual and so well done in this film. I’d like to hear what captured you but then I’d like to know if you saw a progression of steps, like the missing steps of Persephone coming up from darkness or Red Riding Hood escaping the woods. We’re finally getting stories about the way girls are figuring things out.
KN: I like what you say about how Tom avoids force and rejection with her father. She is in touch with her own non-jaded font of compassion for this man who clearly loves her in the only way he is capable. She has nothing to show him or prove to him. She doesn’t feel responsible for fixing or helping or changing him. She guides her own self-individuation with an honorable force that stems from love. But we do see her draw upon her female intuition to direct her course, even when done with a sleight hand. For instance, there was a moment when they are with a social worker and instead of saying, “my dad is crazy,” she tells the worker, “I think you need to interview my father.” Her strength is in confronting without being confrontational, another nurturing feminine aspect.
JAS: There’s also an opening scene where dad is insisting on starting a fire from scratch and Tom goes to propane saying simply, “I’m hungry.” We see that she’s not afraid of her dad. She thinks for herself. This is the first clue that she sees his compulsiveness as something he needs to do for him self but isn’t necessarily in her best interest. She’s well aware that her dad, while smart and loving, is suffering with demons left over from the war.
The reason they’re discovered by the authorities living illegally in the woods is because she doesn’t hide herself well. Someone spots her and she doesn’t tell her dad. Already we guess that she (unconsciously perhaps) wants to be found.
KN: Yes, again she is stepping gingerly through her own woods of awakening, allowing her instincts of hunger, of curiosity, of the thriving life within her to guide her actions and responses to her father. Even in her unconscious desire to be found, she’s not aggressive or motivated by a desire to separate from her father, she’s more pushed organically upon her own life’s path, following her inherent knowing as a true thing to heed regardless of external circumstances. This inner guidance is the one true friend she’s always had, an elemental part of her. In listening to it, it leads her to places that she realizes her own life can flourish, apart from the reality of life with her father. She is looking through life’s candy store while also being gentle toward her father’s distinct reality as well.
JAS: Yes, he’s slowly sorting out the consequences of his demons from his life choices. She wants a more civilized life, one like on the Xmas Tree farm where they’re sent by social workers, where she can learn to ride a bike and sleep in her own bed. She seems to know he would choose a more civilized life for them if he could. But he can’t. When he insists on leaving the farm and they’re on a boxcar, she says, “you shouldn’t be here.”
After they leave the Xmas tree farm, first her life, then his gets put in danger. It’s when her father’s life is in danger from an accidental fall that she begins to separate from him. She sees what he doesn’t see. She’s not angry. She simply starts to make her own choices. This is the beginning of her knowing that he can’t be in charge of her life. After her dad’s accident, they get help from a well-meaning woman living in a community in the woods. The woman asks her where they’re going and Tom says “I don’t think anywhere.” I recognize this as a natural event when a child figures out whether a parent is making good choices for themselves or good for the child.
KN: Yes, that was a big turning point for me. When Tom says, “I don’t think anywhere.” I was smacked with a resonance toward Tom, knowing that this was the moment she realized what her lot in life was as long as she continued down her father’s path. Because Tom wants to go somewhere and as alternate versions of life reveal themselves to her she begins to understand that her own power of discernment is the only thing that will carry her out of her father’s self-imposed mire.
JAS: Yes and Tom begins to take things into her own hands to settle down – renting the trailer and becoming part of the community, attaching herself to the woman in charge. She tries to persuade her dad to agree with her but he doesn’t.
It’s the moment of reckoning between them when she tells her dad that his troubles are not hers that she crosses the threshold. She’s no longer a child. Not yet a woman but a girl with her own mind, she tells him she doesn’t have his problem. He knows it’s a difference that divides them. At first, he insists she accompany him and we wonder if he will put his need for her above her need for a healthier life. The moment of truth comes when she gives him a necklace she’s made from a found objects from society dropped in the woods and he gives her his. We feel the exchange deeply. It is a poignant message. In effect, she’s giving her dad a necklace of safe passage, perhaps understanding that he will face more danger than she. And he gives hers his so his love is always with her. At the very least they’re each going into worlds the other cannot share.
KN: I felt a real sense of peace come over Tom in the exchange of the necklace … she was letting him know that she saw him as an object, also dropped by society, into the wildness of the woods. And it was okay. But it wasn’t going to be her lot in life. This commemoration marked an entrance for Tom into her new life. She made this split from her father a thing of beauty, an honoring of both their lives.
JAS: Paradoxically, it is her ability to merge with community that’s makes Tom different and strong. Instead of what has become a cliché for adolescence, she’s not rebelling. She’s joining a community. She makes friends with a boy and goes with him to a meeting about learning how to take care of a rabbit. She’s not interested in the boy romantically but in his life, what he cares about and what he’s doing. We see how empathy works to strengthen her path less chosen.
She has lived in tune with her dad’s wounded nature but she knows his choices, though best for him, are not best for her. That’s an amazing distinction. No anger of separation, disappointment or betrayal. She is choosing another path and following her best instincts, to connect to community, which requires a disconnection from her dad.
KN: Yes, but even in the disconnection from her father, she is bringing with her into her new life, a profound respect for all he has shown her and taught her. Her survival skills, her attunement with nature, and her keen insight into the nature of other human beings. She becomes a valuable part of her chosen society through utilizing her life’s experience in concert with the new, vast terrain of interaction she finds while being immersed in community.
JAS: Yes, Tom’s intuitive understanding of living in concert with nature begins to give her an identity in her adopted community. When she comes upon a beekeeper in the community, she quickly learns the ways of bees. She’s been at ease with nature, knows it well, and with her dad. Perhaps she has an instinct for being calm in worlds not her own. There’s a metaphoric scene where she shows her father how safe she is with the bees. As dangerous as they look to him, she’s gotten grounding in nature from him that will bode well for her as she makes her way. This ability to live in two worlds is, perhaps, the heroic feminine.
KN: She’s at ease in both, true. Never submerging one for the other, she courageously learns how to straddle both with grace.
JAS: I am reminded of the Allereiruah fairy tale in which the girl of many furs knows her true connection to the universe and will not marry unless the man knows her for who she is.
KN: She’s known who she is forever. Her father’s mental illness becomes an accidental gift, a gift of leaving her to her own devices, of forcing her to cull her own life from within an environment she was planted into.
JAS: Interesting how the film starts out as the father’s story and ends up being such an enlightening story about a daughter. There’s something quite marvelous about that and hugely hopeful.