I don’t want to put people off this film. It’s actually a pretty good, solid family film and I think it will be well-liked. Just look at that photo – quirky outfits, cute kids and Viggo Mortensen. It starts out well. We see Viggo (Ben) and his six children living in the forest, almost completely self-sufficient. They hunt, climb, make their own clothes, read and discuss world issues at a sophisticated level and follow the rigorous training regime of their father. We soon discover that their mother is not there, she is ‘sick’ in hospital, and this is the first sign that not all is well in their world.
What I liked about this film was its courage to portray a very unconventional family in a positive way. There is so much to admire about Ben; how he pushes his children academically and encourages them to question and share their ideas, how he speaks plainly to them and doesn’t patronise them because they are children. He expects a lot from them and they rise to the task.
I found an interesting subtext about the democracy of parenting, or the lack of it. Ben encourages his children to form their own beliefs but is effectively a dictator. When compared to his wife’s sister Harper’s family, it is Ben’s philosophy that seems preferable although Harper’s parenting style is much more democratic.
If the film had explored this path, followed the thread it started about how individual needs of children can be met whilst still equipping them for the world, then I think it would have been a great story. As it is, it becomes very conventional in its emotion and resolution, treading a middle ground that teaches little although probably reassures a lot of people. You don’t want to alienate the American middle class. I couldn’t help thinking that this would have been a much better film if it had been made in France, or the UK. In fact with a British director and writer it would have been What We Did on Our Holiday.
Bechdel test – pass