Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society, Ben and Leslie devote their existence to raising their kids, educating them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie dies suddenly, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time.
When it comes to recent, great family road trip films, “Little Miss Sunshine” would probably be the first one that comes to mind. Now imagine if the family in that film was more into nature and had less social skills. This comparison is easy to make but it is not as simple as that. In this one, a man named Ben Cash (Mortensen) and his wife Leslie (Miller) raise their six children in the wilderness. Here they are completely isolated from society. They raise them to think critically while training them to be fit, all without the use of technology and by showing them the beauty of nature.
Just because they live in the forest, it doesn’t mean the kids are savages. We get a good glimpse of their lives early on where they learn how to hunt, we see them perform various physical activities, we see them read books, and how they like to play music together. This was all fun to watch while also very beautiful to watch. The film greatly captures the Pacific Northwest with some great shots of the wilderness. This greatly added to the plot by making everything feel more believable and also made you feel like you were there. This was their perfect world for which they didn’t want to leave and you believed that.
Of course this doesn’t last as things started to unravel once Leslie suddenly passes away. Now Ben must take his kids out into the real world for the first time. The film began with Leslie gone to the hospital so we never see her interact with her family. The way the family conveyed their loss was emotional and felt genuine but it would have had a greater impact if we could have seen them together. The main driving force was the fact that the kids wanted to see their mother again. The problem here was the opposition Ben was facing from Leslie’s parents Abigail (Ann Dowd) and Jack (Frank Langella). Jack was not a fan, to say the least, of how he chose to raise his grandchildren and did not want Ben to take part in Leslie’s funeral.
These threats don’t quite stop Ben and family as they venture out, in a bus called Steve, to Leslie’s funeral anyway. This is when the fun really began thanks to the culture clash between the kids who don’t know any better and the real world. Most of these interactions based on little social skills and cultural differences were fun and funny to watch and served as a commentary on modern society. The film covered such topics as parenting styles, societal norms, and the handling of grief without ever taking any sides. This best example of this involves a scene contrasting the Cash children with a pair of smartphone-obsessed children. Ben criticises their parents while his parenting style is then criticised. The film presents both styles but does not choose one over the other.
The script was well written as the plot flowed nicely for the most part except for the end which wrapped up a little too nicely. The plot was smart in its commentary, coming across the best through its sharp and witty dialogue delivered by Ben and the children who were much better than expected. It was able to effectively touch us in many ways by making us both laugh during the lighter family moments and make us cry when we dealt with the loss of their mother/Ben’s wife.
It would be hard to imagine anyone but Mortensen as Ben. He was perfectly cast as he was the embodiment of a fantastically imperfect father, hence the title. He was an authoritarian when he needed to be and was just as kind and caring. He was eccentric and goofy like the kids but he was their connection to the real world. His love for his children was very evident here as was his children’s’ love for him, even though it didn’t always seem that way. Mortensen’s performance was definitely one of the best of the year so far and will probably be up for all the major awards. All of the children were just as good and kept up with him throughout especially because their expert delivery of the sharp dialogue. Langella and Dowd were also great as the grieving grandparents who just want the best for their grandchildren.
Overall, this was a great film with beautiful imagery along with a great, smart story with a great script and elevated by Mortensen.