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Captain Fantastic
USA 2016
Directed by Matt Ross
Running time 118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
3.5 stars


Synopsis: Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), and their six children  - Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samatha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), Nai (Charlie Shotwell) - live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society, Ben and Leslie devote their existence to raising their kids -- educating them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the ways of the wilds without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. But when Leslie dies suddenly, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend their mother’s funeral against the wishes of her overbearing and disapproving father, Jack (Frank Langella).

Thirty years ago, in his film The Mosquito Coast Peter Weir took a disenchanted middle-class family out of the suburban rat-race and plonked them down in the wilds of South America where they struggled to come to terms with an alternative kind of back-to-basics life. In Captain Fantastic, Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms, 2012)  does the reverse. The Cash family are right at home in this glorious wilderness. Their semi-Spartan, almost primitive, existence is well established from the opening scene as eldest son Bodevan, kills, eviscerates and eats the heart of a deer. This boy-becomes-a-man ritual is an oddly gruesome beginning to a film that is as funny as it is dramatic.

Ben hopes that the purity of a back-to-nature lifestyle might overcome his wife’s depression. It doesn’t and her suicide is the catalyst for their re-engagement with civilisation. Their cross-country journey to New Mexico brings them into contact with a world they’ve been protected from – the kids are shocked at how many people are obese, fascinated by fast food, and curious to know whether their suburban aunt used a knife or an axe to kill the chicken she serves for dinner. It also brings them into contact with a more conservative and conventional way of thinking; the privileged and wealthy lifestyle of their grandparents.

Tensions between Ben and Jack are deeply ingrained in the older man’s belief that his daughter was coerced to remove herself from society and that this caused her death. Conversely, Ben believes that the world they’ve created for their children is far more beneficial to them than the life Jack would have them lead. Part of the strength of this film lies in the way that this conflict isn’t played out in a cliché where idealistic hippie culture reveals the uptight conservatism of the wealthy parent generation. Instead, we’re offered a view where Ben and Jack are both right and wrong in their beliefs and, if anything, Ben’s idealism might be blinding him to an element of truth in a more conventional way of thinking.

What helps us sympathise with Ben is the humour that we find in the clash of cultures as the children engage more and more with this different world and the articulate way in which they are able to process the experience. But it’s the dramatic moments that call Ben’s dominating, almost indoctrinating philosophy into question. Mortenson is outstanding and Langella delivers a typically fine performance. But the real charm here is in the performances by the children who manage that difficult task of developing both individual characters and a family ensemble. MacKay shines as the older boy who comes to realise that he knows nothing of the world beyond what he’s read in books as does Hamilton as Rellian, the middle son who most rebels against his father.

The ending, which starts out as outrageously anarchic, ultimately settles for something softer. Perhaps this is an inevitability of the story, but it feels like a lesser option than could have been the case. Despite this faltering, though, Captain Fantastic is a film that is as thoughtful and provocative as it is funny and moving.

 

 

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