As fantastic as the title leads us to believe, Captain Fantastic serves up two hours of Americana road-trip fuelled dramedy. Recently widowed father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) uproots his six children’s off-the-grid life in the wilderness of the Pacific North-West to attend the funeral of the family matriarch, learning new life values and exploring the ‘real world’ along the way.
They have long been living life deep in the forest, far from the prying eyes of mainstream capitalist society, where Ben has been raising his children on a steady diet of Noam Chomsky, fine literature, and rigorous physical activity. Forming them into ‘philosopher kings’ and intelligent, sophisticated, and survivalist adults is Ben’s only aim. His rigorous adherence to this routine of betterment and his belief in express honesty about all matters (including a hilariously frank conversation about sex with his eight year old daughter), leaves no room for the kids to just be kids. With that comes the main thematic question of Captain Fantastic: is Ben actually fantastic? Or is he ruining his kids’ lives by teaching them everything except how the real world works? His intensely dictatorial control over his children’s lives and their isolation leave them vulnerable in the real world, with Ben facing criticism and hostility from all angles. He is a protagonist we cannot always root for. As much as he wants to be, and we all want to be, fantastic, it’s impossible to always get it right.
The journey from the forest to sunny New Mexico for the funeral is emotional as well as physical, with every twist and turn met with a blend of comedy and drama found in excellently nuanced acting. Mortensen excels as the idiosyncratic Ben; initially brash and bullish, Ben’s philosophical humiliation and re-birth is embodied fantastically by Mortensen. There is also stellar work from the supporting cast, as Frank Langella and Kathryn Hahn amongst others act as Ben’s concerned and embittered extended family who battle with him over parenting values. However, it is Ben’s six children, played by young actors from all over the globe, that steal the show. Reciting their father’s lessons verbatim, the six soon learn that his words do not define the world, and their individual growth as they discover the real world and their own place in it is marked with outrageous comedy and tearful tenderness.
The directing and cinematography is breath taking. Director Matt Ross captures the beauty of the Pacific North-West like never before, turning the forest into a character of its own. Each image was rendered beautifully, with an abundance of colour and carefully constructed scenes telling the story of the family’s life, in contrast to the real world. It is also complimented well with a subtle but suiting sound track.
Captain Fantastic is a heavy hitter amongst a relatively weak winter of films, landing blows with a considered narrative, fine acting, and visual splendour. Definitely one to watch, and one that more than lives up to its name.
Words by Ciaran Bruder
Image via Captain Fantastic Facebook