We meet the Cash family – father Ben and his six children aged from eight to 18 – as they stalk a deer through lush woodland, killing it using only a knife in a scene reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. They reside in a one-family commune, reading Chomsky and discoursing on quantum physics. Ben (played by the reliably-excellent Viggo Mortensen) and his absent wife have rejected 21st century capitalism and retreated to the forest where they home-school their precocious polymath kids in a makeshift yurt. They speak six languages apiece. They play music around the camp-fire. They drive a converted city-bus called Steve.
It would be nauseating if not for the grand, unforgiving environment; the family exists in a state of nature, living off the land, sticking it to The Man. The scenes set in the wilderness are breathtaking, with cinematography that recalls the Revenant. But when they are forced to take a road-trip, triggered by the suicide of the family matriarch (and her mean old capitalist parents’ decision to bury her in the family plot instead of flushing her ashes down the toilet, as per her last will and testament), writer-director Matt Ross’s film drives headlong into depressingly conventional territory.
A group of outsiders and dreamers travelling across America in a bus draws obvious – and warranted – comparisons with fellow festival darling Little Miss Sunshine, and once this tragicomic show gets on the road it’s hard to shake the feeling it’s all been done before.
Ross makes some interesting – if clearly signposted – points about unreliable narrators, slowly shifting the tone to show how Ben’s alternative parenting may not be as perfect as we first thought. But he’s is too wedded to his characters to end on a bum note, and the finale feels like a massive cop-out. As the Cash family gets closer to the literal toilet, so his film edges inexorably towards a metaphorical one.