Last week, Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in a cultural genocide against indigenous people. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Canada, like the United States, pursued a policy of forcibly sending Indian children to boarding schools where they were denied the right to speak their language and stripped of their culture. In Canada, many of these schools were run by the Catholic Church, and Church officials carried out terrible acts of abuse against these children. The BBC reported that at least 3,200 children died in these schools, though this is probably a low estimate. This was the price paid by innocents for a government that tried to forcibly assimilate people within its borders.
On the day of the pope’s arrival in Canada, entirely by happenstance, I watched a remarkable film about cultural assimilation. Released in 2019, Leave No Trace is a subtle, beautifully made indy film that tells the story of a father and daughter who are living off the land in an old-growth forest near Portland, Oregon. Legally, they are trespassing, but they have made a good home in the forest, all the while trying to stay hidden from the authorities. When someone spots the girl, Tom, the police arrive and arrest her father, Will. They are separated at first, and both are interrogated by social services. The two are then reunited and moved to transitional housing on the property of a farmer who grows and harvests Christmas trees. At first, Will and Tom try to adapt to their new “civilized” lives. She enrolls in school. He works on the Christmas tree farm. They attend church services together. But Will soon tires of this normative existence, and they flee, heading north to Washington State and into another rainforest where, presumably, they will rebuild their simple life completely off the grid.
The film, which is directed by Debra Granik (she directed Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout film) poses some uncomfortable questions about American life: Do people without the means to buy property have any rights to the vast swathes of unoccupied land in North America? How much autonomy do any of us really have in a society that values conformity over individuality? Does the community’s desire to assist a person trump that person’s rights to freedom and autonomy?
Leave No Trace depicts civilization accurately as a velvet juggernaut, ever-present, even in the wildest places and in the deepest recesses of the human mind. In the film’s portrayal of America, everything has been colonized by a benevolent but oppressive nanny state, and we see this oppression through the eyes of two people who believe themselves to be free from it. Will and Tom are treated compassionately by the social workers who genuinely want to preserve this tiny family unit even as they are deeply suspicious of it. They use the tools of social science to interrogate both of them. They want to know if Will is actually her father, and if so, is he abusive. They quickly discover the truth: he is a tender, loving father who has taught her how to survive in the woods while educating her well beyond her grade level.
Why all the suspicion? The film quietly suggests that a low-grade cynicism is baked into society’s sense of what is good and right. The social workers demonstrate this cynicism as they try to root out dysfunction in Will. Later, after Will and Tom take to the road again, they hitch a ride with a truck driver who first takes Tom aside to interrogate her, as the social workers did, about her relationship with her father. “I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing,” he says.
This aggressive beneficence is a theme throughout the film. In one memorable scene, a community of homeless veterans is beset by a bulldozer sent to tear down their makeshift dwellings at the edge of the forest. The audience has already met the army of well-intentioned social workers, police, and bureaucrats who likely sent this bulldozer, so we know how they think: This is what’s best for you, whether you know it or not. It is a will to power disguised as a desire to save people from themselves.
There is no violence in Leave No Trace. Almost everyone Will and Tom meet is a good person, kind and willing to help. Even the other teenage girls in the shelter are nice to Tom when she first arrives there after her father’s arrest. There are no bullies, mean girls or ”bad men” in this world, only the fear of them. But most people have been indoctrinated to think that the only acceptable life is one that is completely free from discomfort or the possibility of harm. When the social workers arrange for Will and Tom to live in a small house with beds and a kitchen and a big living room, they are clearly pleased with themselves for having solved what appears to be a domestic tragedy. The homeless family now has a roof over its head. It is inconceivable to them that anyone would actually prefer to live “unhoused” in the woods. On their first night in this new house, however, when no one else is around, Will and Tom sleep outside on the ground and under the stars in open defiance of the bourgeois “common sense” of their benefactors.
To its credit, the film does not settle for easy answers. Will is a veteran who is suffering from PTSD and his illness is at least partially responsible for his desire to live in the woods. The arrest drives a wedge between Will, who is committed to continuing the forest life at all costs, and Tom, who, as a teenager, naturally craves stability and community. Increasingly, it becomes obvious to Tom that her father won’t compromise with her. There is no right or easy answer to this conundrum, and the film avoids the trap of trying to find one.
Civilization isn’t let off the hook either. Leave No Trace presents America as a country that sends police with dogs to arrest vagrants in the woods and a bulldozer to tear down shelters built by homeless veterans. It threatens to take your children away if the state decides that your parenting doesn’t conform to societal norms and it renders every square foot of land either private property or “state” land.
The human relationship to the land is also at the heart of this film. In one heartbreaking scene, Will is shown at work in his new job, surrounded by harvested pine trees ready to be shipped off to households across America. In this private moment, he crouches, wincing and holding back tears. He has gone from living amongst centuries-old trees in a natural paradise to clipping the tops off of Douglas firs to make them presentable to suburban homeowners searching for the perfect Christmas tree. The pain is almost too much for him to bear.
The film’s depiction of America is bracingly honest, I think. It reveals a country full of good, compassionate people who want to do the right thing, but also full of conformists who do not value individuality nearly as much as the car ads say we do.
Leave No Trace says, quietly, that something is out of balance in the way most of us live our lives. In his great novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey introduces the metaphor of “the Combine” to describe the collective force of societal norms and the state. If you defy the Combine, you are declared insane. It rolls right over you and grinds you down. Leave No Trace forces you to acknowledge that the Combine is real and working in all of us.