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Viggo Mortensen vacates his post as King of Gondor to adopt the role of tough, charismatic, survivalist father Ben, who has raised his kids in an idyllic woodland setting, in the most minimalist of ways. Exercise, literature, music, socialism – this seems to be the menu for the cut-off, pure lives Ben wants his six children to live. When they’re forced to join real world, they’re ultimately underprepared for the alienating experience; in teaching them to swim against the current, Ben rendered them aliens to their own world.

“The resolution in the third act feels rushed and even unjustified”

What do we receive from this undeniably attractive plot? A tender film about grief and morals, disguised as a mushy family drama. I would be content and even impressed with this, yet this ‘disguise’ is ultimately a cloak that is never fully unveiled to reveal the film’s darker core. Indeed, director Matt Ross isn’t afraid to give us sentimental shots of crying children, and thereafter more personal, lonely shots of Ben crying, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that Ross was too reliant on trusty, proven family-drama formula. The resolution in the third act feels rushed and even unjustified, while one of the potentially most interesting aspects of the film – the children adapting to a modern world they are wholly unfamiliar with – is often reduced to meaningless slapstick. Yes, Bo’s spontaneous and misjudged proposal to a stranger, I’m looking at you.

Do not misjudge my opinions, however, I did enjoy the film, and much of this I would credit to Mortensen’s honest, charming turn as Ben. For the first part of the film we see the character as a stern leader, a wise educator with admirable morals and quirky habits, who is a hero for the majority of his children. As the film unfolds – and equal credit goes to Ross, here – we see his flaws and his shortcomings; we’re pushed to consider whether he is a hero or a deluded cult-like leader, and whether he is a good father at all. This enigmatic, compelling progression is owned by Mortensen; he is the only one who manages to open the films safe outer-shell of formula and convention to show us the tragedy and heartbreak beneath. The rest of the cast are also impressive enough, and they do their part to make sure the film retains its soul and charm.

“i couldn’t help but be drawn by the image of what felt like an authentically unified family”

It is the last point that should be stressed: the film is charming, in a Little Miss Sunshine kind of way. The family’s musical talents shine throughout, culminating in a heartfelt, warm rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine – as I suggested earlier, the scene does in many ways feel unjustifiably sentimental given the film’s progression, yet I couldn’t help but be drawn by the image of what felt like an authentically unified family. Where it falls short of Sunshine status is its uneven focus on characters, with the sisters feeling wholly ignored and the men of the film undeniably elevated.

“the films succeeds as a family-drama that is undoubtedly ahead of the curve”

Aided by a remarkable lead performance and intriguing concept, the film succeeds as a family-drama that is undoubtedly ahead of the curve. My criticism is only founded on the film’s unfulfilled potential; Ross could’ve and should’ve done more to stretch the story and embrace its darker elements that were desperate to escape. Regardless, expect to be drawn and hooked by the film’s sincere charm and thought-provoking messages.

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