I recently streamed Leave No Trace, a film most people love or at least admire: it’s at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I thought it was okay, but I wasn’t blown away.

And I had issues.

Granted, it’s a beautiful movie, wonderfully acted and filmed in exacting, breathtaking detail. It opens on a lush forest setting, actually a public park outside Portland, Oregon. an apparent wilderness that provides a hard-won Utopia for an alienated vet and his 13-year-old daughter. The two rarely venture into civilization save for occasional forays into town where Dad picks up the pain meds he later sells at an encampment of like-minded souls. Father and daughter are devoted to each other but suspicious of outsiders – with good reason, it turns out, because once spotted the pair are handed over to the well-meaning powers that be (who incidentally treat them with a gentle humanity I’ve never experienced from social services, and I’ve experienced social services). No matter: he can’t adjust. He hides the television in a closet, refuses to consider cell phones, and panics at a logger’s helicopter. When his daughter inevitably assimilates, Dad vanishes back into the forest.

It’s an unflinching look at the tragedy of the damaged and discarded.

Except it isn’t. 

Now, I don’t know anything about how this script was put together, or too much about how the book it’s based on was researched, but I do have a few facts.

In the source novel, My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Dad’s behavior is not so much symptomatic of PTSD as it’s caused by his having kidnapped this girl from her front yard. Of course he tends to avoid helicopters and law enforcement; of course he doesn’t want her watching television or surfing on a smart phone. Whether or not he’s her father is open to interpretation: fathers kidnap their own children all the time. While much in the novel is ambiguous and arguably fantasy, it was reportedly inspired by the situation of an actual father and daughter who’ve since vanished, and the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart.

And there are real differences in the way the story plays out. In the book, the girl is left on her own, locates her family, but returns to her wandering life. That is the tragedy presented; that’s what the story’s about.

So you see the level of sheer invention here. This movie is about a presumed authentic type that’s based on a very different character in a book who is himself based on a combination of influences rather than any true depiction of a homeless veteran.

He’s an original, a Frankenstein or a Harry Potter. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that: fiction is supposed to be at least a little original. But in Leave No Trace no one does magic or has a bolt in their neck; everything is presented and lauded as authentic. And maybe it is; maybe the film does accurately portray the essential nature of reality for the troubled and homeless – I really don’t know. It might.

Should we just make people up this way and pretend they’re real? Are we being played? There’s something genuinely exciting about creating a whole new human type, but does that creation add fresh insight to any larger discussion? Can it even be unwittingly mimicked or otherwise influence reality?

There’s something deceptive about this quietly superb little movie, and I think it’s important to note that.

(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credit: Becca, leave no trace (CC BY-ND 2.0)