Directed by Matt Ross
2016 Comedy Drama
1 hour, 58 minutes
From Bleecker Street Media
It felt like a little darker version of The Wilderness Family and even a bit like The Mosquito Coast in that it's about a family who shucks city living, jobs, wages, cellphones, milk shakes and interpersonal relationships for an uncertain life in the woods, in this case the great American northwest.
Of course there is a most enterprising father who has handily built living accommodations, home-schools his six children, speaks frankly, if not coarsely around them, teaches them survival skills, discusses fascism (how timely), how to be aware of the dangers of the other world (consumerism, materialism, dog-eat-dog) and reminds them that most Americans are uneducated and over-medicated and they are to avoid that at all costs.
We are provided with a good insight into their lives which apparently seem to work nicely. The children are well-educated, self-sufficient. The talk around the campfire can be blunt but this is clearly a family that has each others' backs.
The mother is hospitalized as the story begins (we see her only in flashbacks) and after she passes away, the conflict begins as the family not only decides to re-enter civilization for her funeral but to stop the burial because she wanted to be cremated. That means confronting the in-laws who have no respect for the way the children are raised and even threatening to have them taken away from the father.
The grandfather is filthy rich and wants to provide for his grandchildren, some of whom he barely knows, because he feels the father is irresponsible if not guilty of child abuse.
You may think as he does and in fact find this aspect of the story disturbing. F-bombs are casually thrown around, nudity seems commonplace, a child is hurt while climbing up the side of a mountain, intercourse is discussed openly with a child of perhaps five or six.
What I found fulfilling as an audience member is that this film lays out more than one point of view and does it respectfully and honestly. I thought that while these children were well-educated, well-read, spoke well and were given a great deal of latitude in how they spoke with their father and had say-so in some family decision-making, one cannot help but feel they were robbed of some innocence. They didn't need city living to do that.
I found I agreed more with how the children were being raised because they certainly seemed like a happier family group than I expect to see living in a subdivision. That stands for something in my book. And who among us should be saying how someone else should raise his children? One might say ultimately what kind of a life is that for kids? My suspicion is that children in this situation are likely to ultimately give up the backwoods life for city life because curiosity about city life will eventually hit big time. Isn't it the opposite for the father who opted out of city life for the wilderness? Furthermore, I saw this as a lovely tribute to a father who dearly loved his children. I am not immune to the fact that some may see it as a reckless love. It's probably safe to say that depending on how you weigh in on what kind of father he is will determine how you feel about the film as a whole. I regard stories about unconventional lifestyles far more interesting than the traditional.
There were a number of positively delicious little scenes that I would enjoy seeing again. When one daughter is asked to explain what she was getting out of reading Lolita, I was fascinated by the exchange with her father. A visit to the wife's sister, brother-in-law and two citified sons was a hoot observing the culture clash. When the family busts into the funeral and gets the attendees all flummoxed with their country ways, it's worth paying attention.
This is not at all about some dangerous radical that is arming his children to take on the world. But it does present some against-the-grain ideas, perhaps, and frequently presents them boldly. It certainly doesn't present wilderness living as the panacea.
One thing that makes this film work for me is the leading man. There should be little doubt that this is the right actor for the right role. We usually tend to wax rhapsodic over an actor's ability to emote on that screen but something needs to be said about an actor's ability to pick the right roles. From the time I first saw Viggo Mortensen in Witness, I was fascinated. That allure continued with A Walk on the Moon, The History of Violence and Hidalgo. He was also a bit of the outsider with quiet passions and a healthy skepticism. Perfect, perfect casting.
This may be the best gaggle of kid actors since The Sound of Music. Everyone is sheer perfection and receives plenty of screen time and individual scenes in which they shine. The oldest one, played by George McKay, was required to run through a myriad of emotions while serving occasionally as a counterpoint to his father.
Talk about perfect casting. When you're looking for an educated, authoritative and imperious grandfather type, why look further than Frank Langella? His scenes with Mortensen positively sparkle.
The writing was exciting, clear, truthful and utterly thought-provoking and the direction was brisk, uncluttered and I am mindful that there were six children to manage and guide. Both jobs were performed by the same person, Matt Ross. He is an accomplished actor but this is just his second writing and directorial assignment for a feature.
This certainly goes in my top wrung of 2016 films so far.