Captain Fantastic (2016) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 118 min.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella, Missi Pyle, Ann Dowd, Trin Miller
Director: Matt Ross
Screenplay: Matt Ross
Review published August 5, 2016
Viggo Mortensen (The Two Faces of January, Appaloosa) stars as Ben Cash, a father of six (ages range from six to eighteen), living "off the grid" in the remote dense wilderness of the Pacific Northwest as part of some sort of self-imposed counterculture exile, where they live off mostly of what's out in nature in a ritualistic fashion -- hunting, farming, rock climbing, survivalist training, and keeping physically fit, as well as mentally agile, learning from some of the great thinkers and philosophers, some quite revolutionary and controversial, the world has ever known. They're all anxiously awaiting his bipolar wife Leslie to be cured of a disease during her hospital stay back in her home town in New Mexico when word comes that she has taken her own life. Though father-in-law Jack (Langella, Draft Day), who blames Ben for poisoning his daughter and grandchildren with his cultish hippie beliefs, explicitly tells him to stay away or get arrested, he packs the family bus and the septet vacate their bohemian digs and are off on the long road trip to crash the funeral. The kids, who've spent their entire lives away from any form of other civilization not found in their novels and textbooks, find so-called civilized society to be a crazier place than they've ever imagined.
Mortensen shines in the lead role as the leftist who "left us" to live a life for him and his family as he sees fit, without the persistent pressures to homogenize to a society that scorns at those who determine to think and live differently. Ben is seen as a sympathetic figure by us first before we can then see him through the eyes of others who are less approving of his anti-authoritarian views and his aggressively progressive approach to educating his children. You begin to question what's right and what's wrong, and what's healthy and what's harmful in terms of walking the walk when it comes to nonconformity to the rest of society. One could say that this is a modern take on The Mosquito Coast but with an antireligious protagonist. Ben takes instilling autonomy and self-fulfillment within his children to such an extreme that it actually borders on putting them in danger quite often.
While the acting is excellent, with surprisingly raw emotional moments nailed quite well by the children, the quirk-filled story enters into uneven territory from time to time, most often when writer-director Matt Ross goes for the cutes. Such things as a celebration of "Noam Chomsky Day", in an effort to supplant Christian holidays like Christmas (a so-called socialist philosopher in place of the most capitalist of holidays), complete with a gift exchange of hunting knives for all the kiddos, are cute and novel, but undercut the ability to take the story at all as serious as Ross would like us to take it at times. The same goes for a scene in which a heart condition is faked in order for Ben to provide enough distraction to allow his children to steal food from a grocery store, dubbed, "Operation: Free the Food", in which Ben could have lost the rights to his children in order to take a relatively paltry amount of food that they could presumably afford with the nest egg they live off of when necessary. Scenes of unfiltered eccentricity involving the the consumption of a raw deer heart, the indoors shooting of a bow and arrow, or propose marriage to the first person they develop a feeling for feel manufactured for our immediate reaction more so than as something that has an honest development that three-dimensional characters might choose to partake in.
Ross's film fares far better the more he stays away from contrived scenes of humor, especially during some of the more emotional and downbeat moments. Though the characters can often come off as idealized, Ross taps into touching elements nonetheless. It's not a film full of great energy or power, but it does encroach as affecting for its characters, especially in the children who manage to still be kids, and desire to be so, even when Ben has been programming them to be grown ups from birth. Whereas the kids they meet who have grown up in society desperately want to do "adult" things, like smoke and engage in sexual activity, Ben's kids steal moments where they can just live carefree and fun as a child, wanting to experience Christmas, dance, sing, and, when he's not watching, or play a video game. Or learn a language not known by the others, such as a scene in which the two eldest sisters speak to each other in Esperanto, something Ben won't allow. Ben wants his children to be independent, but if the child wants to be part of society, by their choice, and he adamantly denies their attempt to make that decision, can they truly claim to be independent? Ben determines that the best way to raise is children is to dedicate every waking moment to doing so, but the film explores that sometimes there is such a thing as doing too much for one's children as a parent.
If you can take Captain Fantastic as a heartfelt dramedy with momentary whimsical flights of fancy, you'll come a long way to enjoying what is actually a unique, entertaining, and thought-provoking film. While the moments of contrivance might make or break the film for some, it's for the moments where the film delves into some important life truths that makes it more than worthwhile for those willing to see beyond the artificial attempts to amuse to get to the genuineness of the poignant thematic material. Though Ross is clearly sympathetic toward Ben, he's also objective enough to see him not as an idealized man who is in the right, or Jack as the villain who is in the wrong because he's imposing his belief system on the daughter who rejected them, but as the complex kind of person we all are, thinking we know the answers to how to cure the ills of society and the only ones who truly understand the right way to raise one's children.
Ben wants his children to be prepared for anything in life, but the one thing he has yet to teach them, possibly because he hasn't learned himself, is the ability to be a part of the world they are born into. Self-determination can often lead to self-delusion if our only basis for how to proceed is determined wholly by others. Ben thinks that the actions that he and his children engage in are right and true, but imagine looking at it from the perspective of Jack, and you can see how horrific and hurtful their actions can seem to the core beliefs and emotions of those with different points of view.
If we concentrate on making things strong in one thing, we leave vulnerabilities in other areas. Ben instructs his children to never use a particular word when it comes to describing something, "interesting", but it's a hard word to avoid when it comes to the movie where such an adjective is considered taboo, precisely because it is so very much so. People are inherently imperfect, and so is the movie that explores this theme -- it is only through love, which often demands the acceptance of flaws to maintain, that we progress into a higher plane of bliss, even if it is within the acceptance of the flawed society in which we live. In the end, we all do the best we can. While love is not something you can truly feel just by reading a book, or watching a film, the ways Captain Fantastic captures a sense of humanity on occasion makes it seem like it could be achievable.
©2016 Vince Leo