Matt Ross writes and directs a tale of political ideology, consumerism, love, loss and what it means (and takes) to be a father in this ambitious, observant piece that premiered at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, where sniffles could apparently be heard from its audience. Who can blame them? It certainly had an impact on me. Unbelievably, I found it frighteningly relatable.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is raising his six children off the beaten track, deep in rural Washington. They’re not your average family. They live in a secluded woodland with tree houses and other buildings, hunt and farm all their own food and every year they celebrate the birth of Noam Chomsky. Ben is ideologically-minded who schools his children with the same beliefs; to stick it to the Man, whilst undergoing intense physical training, reading Nabokov and conversing in Esperanto.
The unconventional hippie clan get along very well and live a comfortable life. Whilst watching, I found myself thinking how appealing it all looked, especially with the children’s education. Fluent in five languages; trained in self-defence; taught to think analytically and critically from an early age; able to navigate by the stars, and in one brilliant scene – recite the Bill of Rights!
Unfortunately, the idealism cannot last and when Ben’s wife, who we learn is bipolar, commits suicide in a mental institution, he and the gang jump on the family bus (named Steve), and embark on a five-day trip to New Mexico where her parents are holding the funeral. Here, Ben and his father-in-law clash, things begin to unravel and questions arise about what is best for the children.
Mortensen is fantastic. He could’ve easily played this as a quirky, New-Age radical protesting and preaching anti-government teachings but he doesn’t. He’s passionate but refined, doing what he feels is best for him, his family and mankind. And the kids, especially the eldest (George McKay) are all up to scratch.
It’s heart-warming, funny, just sad enough, and very engaging. It’s a bold effort from Matt Ross, and one that pays off.