Honesty is a rare feat in cinema, but Matt Ross finds it in Captain Fantastic, reflecting the progressiveness of its male protagonist – Ben, played by Viggo Mortensen, who has raised his children away from the civilisation of the city and within the primal, survivalist forest. It is the news of the death of their mother, which brings them towards the city, traveling by a bus nicknamed ‘Steve’ on a journey of self-discovery, growth and inner reflection.
The heart and humour of Captain Fantastic strikes familiar tonal grounds with dysfunctional-family comedy Little Miss Sunshine, in which Ross presents a family with unconventional relationships and family dynamics. The opening of the film pans over the tops of the treetops, before landing upon a child killing a deer as an “act of manhood” – a sudden, yet stark realisation of the unorthodox parenting method dictated by Ben deep in this forest. Instead, Ben honours his children’s intelligence, where a campfire sequence sees them reading novels like ‘Middlemarch’ and being asked to offer insightful analysis about the novels, climbing mountains and teaching them resilience and first-aid. But while a presentation of anomalous relationships to its audience, the film’s distinctiveness – such as their notable celebration of Noam Chomsky Day – is nevertheless able to offer an affecting tale through its wit and heart.
It is perhaps this nontraditional premise which provides the film a fresh perspective on the educational parental methods, suggesting there may be alternative pathways that we should not be so quick to judge. But Ben’s questioning of his own uncompromising methods concurrently sees a re-examination of a ‘proper’ family, where this conflict is exacerbated by a cleansing motif which sees Ben undergoing water cleansing by nature (waterfall) and mankind (shower). The disconnection from ‘real-life’ civilisation also creates an inherent tension between socially accepted norms and self-taught values, manifesting into emotional strains within the tight-knit family and beyond.
Yet, the film ironically suffers from its conventional approach to its off-the-grid concept. It follows an oddly linear trajectory, where the main events of the film appear soundly familiar, such as when the grandparents of the children hold an intervention to claim custody of the children over Ben, or when the eldest son kisses a girl for the first time. There is a lack of surprises in the film, and it is this where the authenticity of the film is sacrificed, further reinforced by Ross’ need to neatly bow-tie his story so that all characters are left satisfied with the outcomes. The film’s attempt to find a middle-ground for all parties involved feels out-of-character, especially for the notoriously stubborn Ben, whose values seem to change little throughout the film’s running time.
But while feeling slightly contrived, it is the performances and the ability to fuse sharp-wit into the script of the film which sees Captain Fantastic manage to remain poignant and compelling enough to root for Ben and his family.
Directed by Matt Ross
Produced by Monica Levinson, Jamie Patricof, Shivani Rawaf, Lynette Howell Taylor
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn
RATING – ★★★ out of 5