Will (Ben Foster) is the father to thirteen-year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who he looks after in an unconventional single parent arrangement, for they do not live with a roof over their heads, or with any real contact with the outside world aside from those times when it is unavoidable. They do their best to live as close to nature as possible, sleeping in the same tent and making their meals on campfires, though they do have a propane stove should the weather be too damp to light them. However, existing in this woodland landscape is not only what most people would avoid, it is illegal, and they live in fear of the authorities tracking them down...
Not that Will is a fugitive from the law who has dragged his daughter along with him to turn to crime just as he has, he dotes over her as she is his sole companion now he has left the U.S. Army with what appears to be a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder that means he cannot spend much time with anyone else except Tom. The girl does not seem to have known any other way of life apart from this one her father has inflicted on her, and they are still close enough to be their best friend, though the central theme was that no matter how close you were to your offspring or parent, there was always going to be a time when that early bond would have to be loosened.
Or indeed severed, and the whole story was like a slow motion tearing apart of a familial unit that only consisted of two souls, the mother not merely absent but barely mentioned, as if she was not needed. Director and co-writer Debra Granik had form with rural tales, but here she went further than before, with significant passages of the film spent in the lush greenery of the forest which she was able to photograph very attractively, as if it was some Garden of Eden that her protagonists were about to be turned away from. The question being, what would happen if they tried to get back to Paradise, much against the wishes of the folks in charge of the forest and the state?
And moreover, what would happen when Tom realises there's more to life than picking mushrooms to eke out any sustenance with and living with the threat of exposure to the elements leaving your health not exactly in the greatest shape? Not that it was she who found that the biggest problem, though we fear for her when we can understand if something does go wrong when she is living out in the middle of nowhere, then she is going to have a hell of a time setting it right. What if she gets sick? What if she has an accident and cannot move? What if she runs out of food and begins to starve? The idea of returning to a natural - read, survivalist - experience may be romantic to some, and certainly this film was one of those which treated it that way, yet this went further than, say, Swiss Family Robinson.
With crushing inevitability, their essentially invisible ways are revealed as nothing of the sort, and the authorities are well aware that the pair are somewhere in the woods, it's simply a matter of finding them and getting them back to a society that can look after them properly. As if Will has passed his mental malaise onto his daughter, we can accept he needs to be handled with care by a professional healthcare expert, and the narrative existed as a not-so-subtle indictment of the casting of veterans into a void where they are not getting the help they need to readjust to the communities they left behind. It was compassionate rather than bitter, it had to be said, and Foster added to his list of characters who were, well, nutcases basically in a role he could have played in his sleep by this stage even if he didn't get a blow-up scene, but McKenzie seemed set for a Jennifer Lawrence-style springboard to bigger things from Granik's endeavours, essentially playing the lead. If there was a lack of urgency here, it didn't hurt too much, and its conclusion was inevitable but poignant.