Captain Fantastic, the new film by Sundance regular Matt Ross, is a comedy-drama about an unusual family that’s led by a strong-willed patriarch of the hippie/counterculture persuasion, here played by the dependable Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen’s character Ben cares for his six children while his wife is hospitalised elsewhere, undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder. The family lives off the grid, in the Pacific Northwest, where they forage and hunt for food together, grow their own vegetables and avoid what might be described as luxury, unhealthy or unethical items: soap, TV, fizzy drinks, and so on. Ben’s the kind of father who wants to teach his kids valuable information and useful skills so that they have the tools to adapt and survive in any circumstances; during the day the home-schooled brood train to fight with combat knives and learn how to climb mountains, while at night they discuss matters of science and offer critiques of literature before the inevitable campfire sing-song kicks in. Instead of Christmas they celebrate, somewhat amusingly, Noam Chomsky Day, because – in Ben’s words -‘he’s actually a real person’. The grand plan, then, is that the kids will become ‘philosopher kings’; however, as the film takes an age to point out, their upbringing and education ensures that they don’t really fit in when they come into contact with other people, something the children seem to desire more and more. Ben’s approach has become too dogmatic, and the kids are simultaneously growing and suffocating under his rule.
Of course it takes a certain amount of determination to live this way. Ben’s stubborn approach in providing this way of life, and whether or not it has been beneficial to the mental health and welfare of the rest of the family, is examined in a number of ways; there are brief, unsustained challenges to his status as pack leader by his two eldest (occasionally unhappy) boys, Bodevan (George MacKay) and Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), while the family’s decision to go on a road-trip together, thereby coming into contact with the wider, ‘normal’ world, also forces us to ask questions of Ben’s single-mindednes. Most obviously, though, it’s the fragile state of Ben’s wife that serves to undermine the idealism of the lifestyle.
Ross’s decision to opt for the road-trip as a way of exploring these issues recalls Little Miss Sunshine, most obviously: the motley crew pile into an old, rickety bus, whereupon various cracks and fissures seem to get worse and/or heal, and the film takes on a similar, episodic nature, walking the line between broad comedy and serious drama. The group devise a master plan to steal food from a supermarket, in a weirdly anarchic move that doesn’t tally with anything else in the film and could have been explored in more detail. Later, in Captain Fantastic‘s best and most excruciating passage, they drop in on Ben’s exasperated sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) and their two teenage boys. And finally they end up at the palatial home of Ben’s wealthy, conservative father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) and mother-in-law Abigail (Ann Dowd), where the fairly predictable culture clash between the two men is nicely offset and complicated by genuine affection between the grandparents and the kids.
The film appears to have polarised critical opinion, and I’m not particularly surprised: I seemed to veer from liking Captain Fantastic ever-so-slightly to being irritated by it every five minutes or so, based almost entirely on what Mortensen’s character was saying or doing from one scene to the next (though his chipper, can-do, precocious kids are annoying on occasion, too). That’s kind of the point, though; the interesting thing about Ben is that his triumphs go hand-in-hand with his failings. He means well, and has taught his kids an incredible amount, but he is in denial about the negative side effects. As mentioned above the suggestion is that the extremity of these lifestyle choices – however noble the intention – have contributed to his wife’s bipolar disorder, though it’s hard to say for sure as she is an elusive, absent figure.
The film includes some nice photography of the Pacific Northwest, but if you’re averse to being battered around the head with a positive/schmaltzy Sundance Indie Spirit you might want to give it a miss, and I should warn you that the Guns N’Roses cover near the end is one that quickly needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Also, for all the time we spend with this family, the three daughters seem underdeveloped as characters, certainly in comparison to the two older sons. A mixed bag.
Directed by: Matt Ross.
Written by: Matt Ross.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn.
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine.
Editing: Joseph Krings.
Music: Alex Somers, Various.
Running Time: 118 minutes.