Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)


Captain Fantastic (2016): Electric City Entertainment/ShivHans Pictures

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC practically screams “quirky”. I mean, just look at the still from the funeral scene above. But this isn’t quirk for the sake of it, but instead a heartfelt story promoting debate.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) lives in the woods with his six children. He has removed his family from hollow, wasteful, consumer-driven mainstream society and taken them back to a simpler time. They spend their days happy, healthy and connected to nature – running, jumping, climbing trees, hunting and reading science and philosophy. When news reaches them that their mother, who returned to civilisation for medical treatment, has died, the children persuade their dad to take them to her funeral and to meet their grandparents, who have always feared for what Ben’s parenting is doing to his family.

Many of Ben’s parenting techniques are questionable, but one I can wholeheartedly get behind – if you respect your children, then don’t lie to them. The only people Ben lies to throughout the film are a cop and his father-in-law, in both cases because he doesn’t respect them. This commitment to the truth results in some of the film’s funniest moments – Ben’s children will ask him about the world, about life, death, and sex, and he will tell them everything whatever their age.

Ben is a fascinating and contradictory monster. He is the most dedicated father you could ask for, determined for his children to be the most brilliant and able they could possibly be. Yet he is distant, unaffectionate and borderline psychotically focussed at delivering his agenda. He teaches them bushcraft, philosophy, history and sociology but maintains their bubble of routine and limited life experiences. As his eldest Bo (George MacKay, giving the performance of the film) quite rightly, and furiously, points out, he has been taught so much and yet “knows nothing”. There is, it is said, a great difference between knowledge and wisdom.

The film serves as a gentle critique of both “normal” and alternative lifestyles. Writer-director Matt Ross does a good job of not overtly laying into either side, acknowledging that everyone’s experience is different (and that’s fine) and there are benefits and drawbacks to every way of living and raising children. Ben tells his children that they “do not make fun”, but is quick to show off the intelligence of his youngest daughter in comparison to his in-laws’ children, using her as a ringing endorsement of home-schooling vs state education. When the kids finally get to meet their grandparents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) they are, for the first time since their mother left, shown tangible affection and genuine attention to and interest in what they actually want to do with their lives beyond living in harmony with nature.

I found it really hard to feel anything for Ben at the beginning, particularly the moment when he announces to his children the death of their mother with scarcely a reaction. This is somewhat made up for later on when, alone and at his lowest point, he has a complete emotional collapse. Viggo Mortensen is famous for going all-out in his preparation for roles (that, and getting his kit off in recent years, which he does again here) and if he took his sword to dinner while filming THE LORD OF THE RINGS, you wonder how deeply he threw himself into the character of Ben.

I know this isn’t purporting to depict reality, but could a family really go against a dearly departed’s Last Will and Testament just because her widower was brandishing it and making a scene at her funeral? The ending could have probably done with a bit more punch – just some minor tweaks would have done it. It ends up as a classic, quirky and bittersweet conclusion to an indie where the film would have certainly endured bringing its audience crashing back down to Earth. An interesting film then (even if, according to Ben, interesting is a “non-word”) that will inspire much discussion and which, refreshingly, doesn’t presume to know how you should spend your life. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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