2016, R, 118 mins.
Viggo Mortensen as Ben / George MacKay as Bodevan / Samantha Isler as Kielyr / Annalise Basso as Vespyr / Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian / Shree Crooks as Zaja / Charlie Shotwell as Nai / Trin Miller as Leslie / Steve Zahn as Dave / Kathryn Hahn as Harper / Ann Dowd as Abigail / Frank Langella as Jack
Written and directed by Matt Ross
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is one those delectably quirky and offbeat dramas about an equally quirky and offbeat family unit that definitely takes great pains to make audience members identify with and understand said family unit.
The film was a critical and audience darling on festival circuits earlier this year (even garnering an unheard of ten minute standing ovation at Cannes). A little part LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and THE MOSQUITO COAST, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC contains some strongly compelling thematic material about the nature of child rearing, not to mention how families deal with and process grief. The film is also an embarrassment of performance riches, with a robustly reliable Viggo Mortensen confidently leading the charge.
FANTASTIC has all the makings of an endearingly memorable and touching
film that makes it hard to hate.
found far too much of this film frustratingly myopic in its approach.
It was also dramatically insufferable at times.
A little bit of
context is required by me before I move forward in explaining myself.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC features Mortensen as Ben, a bohemian tree hugger
if there ever was one. He has
taken his entire family - including six children at various ages - to
wholeheartedly abandon all ties to urban life and instead embrace the
wilderness in all of its forms. He
has essentially relocated his children in a very remote part of the
forests of the Pacific Northwest and has lived off of the land for what
appears to be years. No smart
phones. No computers.
No TV. Instead, Ben
home schools his kids with what could best be described as a Swiss Family
Robinson style that involves methodically training not only their young
and fertile intellectual minds (they're versed in multiple languages,
quantum theory and Dostoevsky), but also their bodies (his daily boot
camps includes body conditioning and self defense as well as instructing
his offspring on how to kill wild animals with nothing but knives).
All in all, this completely off-the-grid and self reliant family is
basically a hyper literate squadron of adolescent and child Rambos.
the family when it's revealed very early on that Ben's wife has committed
suicide after years of battling bipolar disorder (which may or may not
have manifested itself because of her seclusion in the wilderness apart
from her family and civilization as a whole).
In one of the film's more gut wrenchingly potent and frank scenes,
Ben explains to his kids very matter-of-factly that their mom is gone and that they have essentially been banned from attending the
funeral by her father Jack (Frank Langella).
Predictably, the kids all want to pay their last respects to their
fallen mother, and Ben in particular wants to honor her wishes outlined in
her will to be cremated and then have her remains dumped in a place that
99.99% of people don't wish to have their ashes lay. As a man perpetually driven to flip the bird at the status
quo, Ben decides to gather his clan in his ransack bus and make the
pilgrimage to the funeral to ensure that she receives the proper Buddhist
send off she wanted. Of
course, her dear ol' daddy has other ideas.
was directed by Matt Ross, whom you may recognize more for his work as an
actor on the small screen on shows like the recent SILICON VALLEY and past
efforts like BIG LOVE. Ross shoots this film impeccably well and the opening
introductory establishing shots capture the ruggedly foreboding, yet
beautiful terrain that Ben and his family find themselves inhabiting.
As a picturesque travelogue into "bush" life, CAPTAIN
FANTASTIC is fetching eye candy, to be sure.
As previously mentioned, the film also has some legitimately
compelling things to say about the whole nature of the modern education
system. There's a sly scene
in the film when Ben and his children make a pit stop stay at his sister
Harper's home (Kathryn Hahn) who still really feels that her bother is
failing his kids. To prove
his point, Ben asks his teenage nephews to inform him what the Bill of
Rights contains, to which they pathetically fail.
Ben then asks his youngest the same question and she unleashes an encyclopedic
answer. Harper's kids know
everything about pop culture, but very little else.
This leads me,
though, to one of my largest beefs with CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: This film has
as much obsessive minded tunnel vision as its main character.
Ben is aggressively forced fed to audiences as an unwaveringly
sympathetic soul that's supposed to capture our rooting interest and
steadfast support. Ben is so self-righteous in his cause that he only sees his
way as the right way for his kids, and because Ross seems legitimately
reticent at being openly critical of Ben's choices in life it has the
negative side effect of making CAPTAIN FANTASTIC come off as a one sided
diatribe against everyone that disagrees with him.
In many ways, Ben rarely feels like a real flesh and blood
character because he's so rigidly idealized throughout this film.
Ross really shies away from the many nagging and obvious questions
that arise about Ben's problematic - and sometimes dangerously unhealthy -
Are his children really happy, productive, and mentally healthy
individuals that are better off in the wild well segregated from society?
There are no doubts that they're more physically fit than average
children (which has a lot to do with being trained like child soldiers by
Ben), but what of their emotional well being?
How can any of these children form meaningful ties with anyone
outside of their family? Ben's
tutelage ensures that it's an impossibility. These
kids are inordinately intelligent, but how does speaking four languages
and pontificating about great literary work prepare them for adulthood in
the real world? That, and how
self actualized are they as well? Ben
preaches a great gospel about being true to yourself, speaking your mind,
being an independent spirit, and always questioning authority, but he
rules over his kids with such an authoritarian fist that it makes their
actual freedom kind of a laughable. Ben's family feels less like an emotionally grounded and
mutually supportive group and instead comes off more as a militarized cult at
times. That can't be
altogether healthy for anyone.
Most of the key
figures in the film that oppose Ben and his ways are either presented as
obtuse minded fools or affluent fat cats that smugly think they know
what's better for his children. Take
Frank Langella's character, for instance, who could have easily been
developed as an intriguing foil to Ben.
Alas, here he's presented in such one sided terms as a hostile
antagonist that's a threat to Ben's way of life, so much so that CAPTAIN
FANTASTIC seems to abandon any significant and thoughtful examination of
what constitutes child abuse and what doesn't.
And Jack actually has a point about Ben risking his
grandchildren's lives in the forest to the point, so much so that he
unintentionally becomes a sane and soft spoken voice of reason here.
But, nope, any attempt for fair and balanced family conflict here
is absent. But we're supposed
to cheer for Ben and his crew because they're "outsiders" and
"misunderstood"...and because the screenplay demands it.
And don't even
get me started on this film's final twenty minutes or so, which involves
Ben's family making a truly ghastly and mortifying choice that seems less
like the product of reality and more like something that would only occur
in the made-up la-la land that is this film.
Many viewers will, no doubt, be driven to cheer their actions,
whereas I was left in a state of absurd mouth dropping disbelief (the
manner that the film builds off of this to a unbelievably padded and hooky
feel good ending for all seems completely unearned to boot).
I just reach a point when I began to seriously question Ben's
very sanity, which is not a good position to put a viewer in, especially
in a film like this that wants you jubilantly support this weirdo to
A film as
wrongheaded as CAPTAIN FANTASTIC shouldn't be as thanklessly acted as it
is. The youthful performers here are remarkably solid at conveying themselves as book smart
intellectuals that are hopelessly out of touch with the modern day norms
of everyday city life. And
Mortensen himself once again demonstrates how good he is at stripping away
any semblance of vanity by playing grizzled, grungy, and unattractive
characters that feel both invitingly warm hearted, yet cruelly vindictive
at the same time. His
multi-faceted and layered performance makes Ben far more intriguing than
the lopsided screenplay ever affords him.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC has thought provoking ideas to probe about the
philosophies of child rearing and endangerment, but it rarely has any
nerve to seriously tackle them. If
you strip away this film's colorfully eclectic facade all you're really
left with is a pretty shallow drama with cookie cutting sermonizing.