I didn’t expect this at all! Believing I was going to a family film, I thought I would see a gushing, sentimental, father alone bringing up his children movie.
Well, the father does care for his children without the help of a wife, but the upbringing is far from usual. Some 15 years before the beginning of the film, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie moved with their six children away from urban civilisation to live in the wild in rural Washington. The live in huts and makeshift out-buildings and hunt for food and farm and fish and are self-sufficient. Schooling the kids themselves the couple instills ideas of the basic ideas of socialism and the benefits of an anti-capitalist society.
When his wife, who is in hospital suffering with mental health issues including being bi-polar, kills herself, Ben has to take the children out of their protected environment to attend his wife’s funeral in New Mexico. This is not so easy as her father Jack (Frank Langella) blames Ben for his daughter’s death and threatens to have him arrested if he shows up at the funeral. Ben bundles the children into his old school bus and goes to the funeral where he protests at the type of funeral being held in a church. Leslie was a Budhist and Ben and the children want her to have a cremation – the kind of end she would have wished for.
While we can applaud the natural way the children live, it is not so easy to accept watching the father welcome his oldest son, Bodevan (George MacKay) becoming a man by killing a deer and eating its heart. The bloodied children come together to play lovely music around a campfire. So moments of tribal existence are coupled with the children discussing politics and philosophy with their father.
Wealthy Jack believes that Ben is abusing the children by allowing them to partake in extremely difficult physical activities where they frequently get injured. He wants custody but the children although eagerly using some of the goodies on offer love both their father and their lifestyle.
There are some amusing scenes which focus on the unusual way these children are being raised. When they stop to visit Ben’s sister and family the woodland family know nothing of supermarket foods or teenagers games but are well educated on such matters as the Bill of Rights although they are home-educated and only accept the views of their father, because that is all they are given. The two teenage sons of Ben’s sister are amazed at their cousins. Another scene shows Bodevan’s awkwardness at chatting up a girl he meets on the family’s journey to the funeral. Ben teaches his children to celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday but not Christmas.
Not everything is hunky dory and Bodevan, with the help of his mother, has secretly applied to the top colleges. He is forced to show letters to his dad offering him places at all the prestigious schools. He wants to study and a younger boy (Nicholas Hamilton) wants to live with his grandparents and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.
It is not always clear which side director Matt Ross supports but the acting of Viggio Mortenssen and all the children, particularly George MacKay as the oldest, Bodevan and Samantha Isler as daughter Kielyr and Nicholas Hamilton as the middle boy Rellian (all the children have unusual names as Ben wanted them to have names that no one else has) is so good that each scene comes alive as it plays out and it is really up to each viewer to decide which lifestyle is best for children or whether, perhaps, a mixture is what works. Excellent photography of the land around the isolated woodland family and a good length for each scene allows the film to develop at its own pace and for the audience to always be fully involved. Highly recommended.
Review by Carlie Newman