Bleecker Street 1 hour 58 minutes R
This film is billed as a comedy, drama and romance. It has all those elements. But it’s the performances of Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings) and the 6 young actors as his kids living off the grid in the wilderness that will keep you riveted. This is a unique family story.
You’ve seen Actor Matt Ross in Silicon Valley and American Horror Story as well as other programs on TV. He wrote and directed this, his first feature film. He says that as a father, he started asking what kind of parent he was. That inspired him to create the kind of father in this film that he would like to be.
Mortensen plays Ben, father, mother, teacher, trainer to his 6 smart kids deep in the woods in the wilderness. Mom was there but not now. They’re roughing it. When became sick and is hospitalized away from the family. When that happens, relationships, as well as the reason for living outside the norm are tested. Tensions rise, other family members get involved and each kid has their own reaction to the situation which Mortensen as their father has to manage. He gives insight narrating at times what he has to do and the fact that all parents make mistakes.
Ross says casting the kids took a long time because he wanted them to get so involved in their characters and so comfortable they’d forget they were being filmed and improvise. Some were actors. One was not. They are George Mackay (How I Live Now), Annalise Basso (Oculus), Samantha Isler (Sean Saves The World), Aussie Nicholas Hamilton (Strangerland), Shree Crooks (Extant), and newcomer Charlie Shotwell. And they are exceptional.
Ross put the kids through 3 weeks of boot camp. Mortensen says he used to live in Northern Idaho and went there to start his own prep. Then he joined the kids for 2 weeks of boot camp with the kids before shooting began. They bonded doing martial arts, rock climbing, gardening, actually skinning animals. And you see them do it all. It’s like a mild Revenant without the special effects.
Ross also had the kids sign a contract to not to eat junk food, cutter sugar intake, and stop drinking soda, for starters. They were to eat only healthy, like veggies and meat. And he assigned them specific books to read!
Mortensen says the kids were like Olympic athletes. They worked hard and took it so seriously. He was really impressed. The kids are engaging and endearing. And Mortensen, as Ben, plays tough, but honest and loving. His take on parenting?“We try to bring the kids up in a state of constant self examination, self improvement, physically, mentally, in all ways really.” He calls this a special movie with “thought provoking moments and funny moments.” and says he laughed as much as he cried when he first read the script.
It’s also a love story between Leslie (played by Trin Miller) and Ben. This couple becomes separated when she is hospitalized because of her serious illness. You see flashbacks of their loving relationship and their commitment to the children. When tragedy strikes and other family members get involved, Ben and the kids are forced to come back into civilization. The problems mount and everything is questioned. There’s major conflict between Ben and his father-in-law, Jack and his wife, Abby, played by Frank Langella and Ann Dowd, over custody of the children and how to raise them.
For some of the kids, it’s their first taste of living like kids in the mainstream. They’ve been raised to distrust and reject contemporary life with its conveniences. The scene with Ben and his sister’s family (played by Katherine Hahn, Steve Zahn, Elijah Stevenson and Teddy Van Ee) at the dinner table uncovers wide gaps in behavior. Tension keeps mounting. Adults and the kids rebel over what’s best for who. George MacKay who plays eldest son, Bo, sums up the whole issue in an emotional rant with his father. He screams that he knows everything from books, but he knows nothing about life! This comes after his very first encounter being attracted to a young woman. Ross gives each of the kids in this movie their chance to shine and they do.
But we found one puzzling flaw towards the end of the film, where there seems to be a big hole in the story. Without giving away anything, there was a major section of storyline involving the father-in-law and these kids that’s missing at the climactic moment. We found that troubling, but still thought the premise and performances, on all counts, superior.
Is this worth your bucks? This is an important movie. The performances of this amazingly talented cast of kids, along with Mortensen’s intense performance, is definitely worth seeing. You’re not sure you’re going to like Ben at first but, in the end, you do.
Director Ross has created a tragic story that’s handled with tenderness and humor. The scenery, which was shot in New Mexico and Washington State, is breathtaking. The survivalist lifestyle and child rearing principles Ben instills in his kids may make you reevaluate your own parenting skills. Ross says that living in this very extreme way is not common in our culture and that his film will probably make you wonder “whether this father’s methods are either insane or insanely great!”