Movie Review: Captain Fantastic

Strong story and performances help a story of a family living in the wilderness

Captain Fantastic
Directed by Matt Ross
With Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn

Films about a single father attempting to raise a bunch of kids are usually cute melodramas, made to age-old formulas and pitched at a family audience.

Captain Fantastic takes a different tactic. It doesn't dumb down the material, and instead presents fairly complex characters in a situation where right and wrong is not so clearly defined.

The film won the Právo Audience Award at the 51st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and also won Prix de la mise-en-scene in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

The worst part of the film is perhaps the title, which sounds like some sort of comic book action film. Perhaps the producers were hoping to fool the summertime audience. There is nobody named Captain Fantastic in the film, and no hint of superheroes or special powers. The Czech title, Tohle je náš svět, meaning This Is Our World, is a bit more accurate if slightly less engaging.

Viggo Mortensen, known for his roles in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, has a bit of a change of pace as Ben Cash, the father of six children living deep in the forest in the Pacific Northwest.

He is raising them by his own set of liberal ideals, and teaching them how to fight and hunt. He also teaches them the evils of capitalism, literary criticism and high-level math and science.

But the little ideal community is coming under some stress. The children's mother has been away at a hospital and this eventually causes Ben Cash and the six children to have to go on a road trip back into civilization to meet relatives, some of whom dislike Ben because of his unusual lifestyle. At the same time, the children are growing up and some of them do not seem to want to spend their entire lives in the woods.

There is a good supporting cast, although the roles are small. Frank Langella, Ann Dowd and Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn turn up fairly late. Langella in particular gives a strong performance as the grandfather who sincerely believes that the children deserve a better life, but his wealthy and ostentatious character embodies all that the children have been taught to hate.

Among the children, George MacKay as Bodevan, the eldest child, stands out. He is realizing that the forest life among books and survival exercises has left a huge gap in his social skills. When women his own age try to talk to him he looks like a deer caught in the headlights, although under other circumstances he is quite resourceful. Rising star Erin Moriarty turns up in one charmingly awkward scene and forces him to be a bit social. The rest of the kids have smaller roles and are a bit less developed, although some have less enthusiasm for their lifestyle than others.

Viggo Mortensen, though, is the backbone of the film and gives a formidable performance. His character firmly believes that what he is doing is right, and the rest of the world is wrong or misguided. Yet he does not come across as a psychopathic control freak who is destroying those around him. Even though his ideas and methods could seem to be something from a cult, he manages to make it seem like a normal state of affairs.

He does have to re-evaluate his position, though, and proves not to be so dogmatically stubborn. As is typical for Mortensen, his performance is fairly low key, with his silences saying as much as his words.

And at times he seems to be proven right. His children are well-educated, healthy and resourceful, if a bit out of the loop on pop culture. When they go back into society they are shocked by the amount of obesity and by violent video games, and have no idea about brands and consumerism.

He is also proven wrong, which puts him in a contemplative mode. When back in the real world, he is confronted with having to explain the bruises on one of his children from the rigorous training he has undergone. Later, another child has an accident doing an irresponsible stunt the approved of. This makes him see the situation from another perspective, and his certainty is not so certain anymore.

The screenplay manages to bring its themes of individuality versus conformity together, without making the plot seem to be forced into a standard mold, which is an accomplishment.

The film was written and directed by Matt Ross, who in 2012 made the film 28 Hotel Rooms, which did poorly at the box office and got mostly negative reviews. He seems to have learned something from that experience, as Captain Fantastic is already being hailed as a top film of the year.

Ross is mostly known as an actor, having had bit roles in films like Twelve Monkeys, American Psycho, The Aviator and Good Night and Good Luck.

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