CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Matt Ross

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Nicholas Hammond, Anne Dowd, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller.
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Despite the title this is not a superhero movie. Captain Fantastic is a quirky mix of comedy, drama, journey of self discovery, and coming of age story and something quite different from the usual mainstream fare.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie have left behind civilization, living off the grid and raising their kids in the wilderness of the Pacific northwest. The kids all have new age sounding names like Bodevan and Rellian. He’s adamant that they won’t be average American kids. The kids learn how to hunt and gather and undertake some rigorous physical training, but they are also home schooled and well-versed in literature and esoteric subjects such as politics, philosophy, the constitution and the work of Noah Chomsky, but have little knowledge of the real world. Ben’s wife Leslie lost touch with reality a while ago and was committed to an institution. Her sudden death prompts Ben to pack up his brood and head off on a road journey to New Mexico to attend her funeral. They all travel in the old yellow school bus they name Steve.
For many of Ben’s children, who range in age from five to sixteen, this is their first exposure to the real world and what follows is a clash of cultures. They experience America and its rampant consumerism and corporate greed, its obese people, and their ignorant acceptance of certain rules.
But Ben’s father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) has expressly forbidden him to attend because he feels that Jack is irresponsible and disapproves of his lifestyle choices and the emotional damage he feels it has caused. But Ben also disrupts the funeral as he says that Leslie wanted to be cremated rather than buried, which leads to some ugly confrontations.
Jack finds Ben’s children a little strange and confusing, and Ben is forced to question whether he has been acting in the best interests of his children. The heated confrontations between Jack and Ben about the welfare of the children shows the different viewpoints about the lifestyle choices. While Ben has filled their heads with knowledge he has not trained them to deal with the world and interact with other people. While we may not always agree with Ben’s stance, we can sympathise with him and his desire to give his children a better life.
Captain Fantastic marks the second feature for writer/director Matt Ross, following his 2012 feature debut with 28 Hotel Rooms. An actor who has appeared in television shows like American Horror Story and Silicon Valley, Ross has based the film on his own experiences as a father. His script is perceptive and compassionate and will make you think.
Captain Fantastic offers up some profound observations and raises some intriguing questions about dysfunctional families, dealing with grief, society’s values, family values, the pursuit of the American Dream and what it means to be a parent in today’s world. It speaks to a sense of disillusionment with contemporary mainstream America, its hypocrisies, its obsession with trivialities and superficial stuff, and even addresses the failings of its education system. And some of its ideas will resonate strongly with audiences. But while it may sound quite serious stuff, the film is laced with generous touches of humour, particularly from the younger children who ask the darnedest questions in an unaffected manner.
Ben is a complex character, and Mortensen delivers a strong and nuanced performance in the role and he brings some powerful emotions to those scenes in which he comes to question his own decisions. He is a charismatic actor and commands our attention, and holds the film together with one of his best performances. Langella brings authority to his role as the resolute grandfather whose tough decisions threaten to tear the family apart. George MacKay (from How I Live Now, etc)  is also strong as Bo, the oldest child, who has secretly been applying to colleges across the country, and he gives the material its touches of humanity. He also has his first clumsy encounter with the opposite sex during the road trip.  Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton (Strangerland, etc) plays the rebellious, brooding and increasingly bitter young Rellian who begins to question Ben’s authority and teachings and the family’s unconventional lifestyle. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn also shine in their brief appearances as relatives who are shocked by Ben’s lifestyle choices.
Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Rust And Bone, etc) makes good use of the wilderness locations and scenery, especially in the early scenes, and his widescreen lensing gives the film a glossy visual style.
Captain Fantastic explores some challenging ideas and examines differing lifestyle choices, and while much of the material is provocative its ending may well divide audiences.

★★★☆

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