Film Review – Captain Fantastic
In writer/director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic (2016), a father named Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raises his six kids deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. He puts them through tough physical and mental training. They learn how to live off of the land: grow their own crops, hunt game, and build shelters. Their exercise consists of high intensity workouts. Ben educates them himself, forcing them to read and comprehend far beyond what children their age are required to in school. On holidays they celebrate Noam Chomsky instead of Santa Claus.
Ben is a free thinker. He rejects the conventions of a civilization based on capitalism and organized religion. His goal is to raise his kids as philosophical protégés, above what’s expected from other young people. Based off of this premise, Ross’ film could have been excruciating, preaching to the audience saying, “Look how fat, lazy, and materialistic society is. Isn’t it so much better to live like Ben and his family?” There are times where it comes dangerously close. While visiting relatives, Ben asks two young boys raised in a traditional household if they know what the Bill of Rights is. When they can’t provide an answer, he asks the same question to his daughter (who is much younger than the boys), who not only answers it but provides her opinion over its significance.
I was leery of the first half, not knowing where this was going. I was afraid that we would delve into arrogant self-importance, but Ross doesn’t fall for that trap. Things come to a crossroads when Ben’s wife – who was sent back to civilization to treat an illness – suddenly dies. Under pressure from his kids, Ben decides to pack up and travel south to attend her funeral. This poses big issues. Not only has his kids never interacted with the outside world, his parenting decisions come into question. Is Ben giving his family tough love, or is he abusing them? Do the kids benefit from an advanced education and strong physical fitness, or are they missing the experience of just being kids?
The film seems to sit in the middle when answering these questions. Sure, the kids exhibit talent that work in their favor. Ben’s oldest son Bo (George MacKay) is an exceptional young man. Bo secretly desires to go to college, applying for and getting accepted to some of the finest universities in the world. However, due to his upbringing, Bo has developed no life experiences. He has little social skills, remaining awkward around anyone other than his family. During a stop in their trip, Bo has a short romantic fling with a girl his age. Unable to gage the situation because of his inexperience, Bo proposes to the girl almost immediately after meeting her.
Is Ben a good father or a man living out a fantasy as a stuck up know-it-all? Reality comes bursting in from the seams. The father of Ben’s wife (Frank Langella) points out that Ben freely gives his kids weapons as presents and – in a truly bad decision – robs a grocery store when food supplies run low. Ben’s younger son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) shows contempt for his father, bitter that they’re forced to train like soldiers. It’s a back and forth debate that doesn’t come to a definitive stance. Ross opts for a compromise between the two, which feels strangely like a cop out.
From what I’ve described, one would think that this is a super heavy story with really big philosophical quandaries to ponder. While that is definitely an element, the surprise here is how funny the whole thing is. Captain Fantastic can be labeled a comedy, with the amount of laughs that come through. Most of these are fish out of water scenarios as the family walks through the modern world bewildered with everything they come across. There is a lot of heart and sweetness. Ross and his cinematographer (Stephane Fontaine) have a keen eye in capturing little moments that speak volumes for the characters. A girl resting her head against her sister’s shoulder, or the way the entire family joins together to sing songs around the campfire. These bits add up to a nice whole, allowing some joy within dramatic material.
Viggo Mortensen has been one of the most underrated actors of his generation. He always comes with a strong performance, regardless of the type of role he’s in. His portrayal of Ben works because he doesn’t allow the character to be a perfect person. Ben doesn’t always have the answers, and sometimes makes the wrong choices. The grief of his wife’s death is constantly on Ben’s mind, possibly clouding his judgment with his kids. Mortensen exudes strength, intelligence, apprehension, and despair in equal measure. Ben can be arrogant and stubborn in one scene, and then vulnerable in the next. After a terrible decision causes one of his kids to be in real physical danger, the reaction on Mortensen’s face is all we need to know about him at that moment.
Captain Fantastic is a good, but not quite great film. Even though the closing passages don’t hit as emotionally as I think they were trying to, everything prior worked well. The overall message does feel a little muddled, I was unsure of the main intent: was this a character study or did Ross have something to say about what these people were going through? All that is of little consequence when compared to the quality at work here. The true strength was in the performances, especially with Mortensen. That alone is worth a recommendation.