In Captain Fantastic Director Matt Ross smuggles his audience beyond the bosky banks and
redwood rows of the Pacific Northwest, indoctrinating us into a baby-faced tribe armed with
clenched fisted salutes that ‘stick it to the man’. Baptised through the blood and mud of the
opening scene, we become part of a family unplugged from society. Our adoptive father
presents an idyllic way of life where The Swiss Family Robinson meets The Communist
Manifesto. It’s a life of fashioned patchwork quirks, where books are stacked as high as the
trees that chirp. ipads are traded in for IQs. Self-reliant and self-sustained, a harmony is
struck between human activity and the grandeur of nature. Days are spent enduring harsh
physical drills while the night sets stage for impromptu singalongs by firelight’s flicker.
It’s not soon after our introduction that tragedy hits, shunting the ‘kumbaya’ lifestyle out of tune. News comes through of the family’s mother, Leslie, who after leaving the forest to undergo mental health treatment commits suicide. This fatal blow catapults Ben and his six children back into modern civilisation with a mission to ensure Leslie is given the Buddhist cremation she always wanted albeit against her parents’ wishes. Throughout their journey cracks start to appear across our utopian family’s grand design. Kids that were trained to question everything begin to ask questions of their captain. The film’s simple premise explores what life would be like if you devoted every waking moment to your children. It aims in making us question our own parental choices, and re-evaluate our hopes.
Matt Ross is a director who is seemingly more interested in ‘character’ over anything else, which is no surprise considering his successful acting career. “I fundamentally believe that most people’s experience with a film is through the actors. It’s a way to connect with our fellow human beings” Ross told DP/30. This belief is delicately threaded through each aspect of what makes Captain Fantastic an enjoyable film. Shot by the very talented Stéphane Fontaine—who previously worked on such films as A Prophet (2009) and The Beat that my Heart Skipped (2005)—brings his organic touch to the screen once again. Fontaine’s cinematography crafts character in a film that could have easily turned into an over stylised farce. His frame pulls the actor’s ability to the foreground, highlighting quality performances throughout. Each of the six children puts on a stellar show from start to finish. They initially approach us like mechanized parrots, squawking back Ben’s anti-capitalist credo, “Power to the people / stick it to the man” but soon realise that the ‘man’ in question might be their own father.
Viggo Mortensen nimbly tiptoes the line between ‘best dad in the world’ and cult leader. Ben’s approach to his family may be somewhat dangerous and deluded but we can’t help but admire his undoubtable devotion to his children. Scenes of negligence and theft trespass our funny bones, tickling all the right places. We shouldn’t be on his side but that’s where we find ourselves. Mortensen’s prowess lies in his close-ups, using subtle glances and nuanced gestures to peel through the layers of thick skin, revealing a single father’s desperation to preserve the memory of his wife.
Though the film is not however without its flaws. Ross seems relentless in tugging on our heartstrings, daring them to snap. Family jam sessions turn lilting sentiment towards schmaltz and for all of the ‘edginess’ on the surface, Captain Fantastic finds an all too neat ending which left me sadly unconvinced. The comedy, though abundant, mostly centres around the same (fish out of water) joke: the family’s inability to comply with the social norms of the outside world. It’s an inevitable gag that works well initially but soon grows tiresome. The comedic moments that really work see the family grow closer as a result. In one memorable scene taking place in the Family’s dilapidated bus named Steve, the children have to think quickly when conning a police officer. The officer hops aboard poking around and asking questions only to be met by a surrounding chorus of evangelical preaching. Mistaking them for Christian fundamentalists, he quickly burrows back into his squad car, never to be seen again. It’s a funny and unexpected turn that shows the children are always at hand to help one another out.
The character of Leslie’s father, Jack (Frank Langella) who initially appears to be the film’s antagonist, a wealthy, upper class fat-cat hell bent on sinking his claws into Ben’s family, but we soon come to hear him as a voice of reason. Though he might be the antithesis to Ben, essentially they both want what’s best for family. In what seemed at the outset a film facing off the left and right wings of America, it ultimately fuses both by focusing on the bigger issue. How should we raise our children?
The film poses questions, leaving the answers for us to figure out. But one thing is for certain, the most compelling part of Captain Fantastic is the skipper himself. He’s an ordinary man doing extraordinary things for the well-being of family—a guardian to many and a part-time menace to society. Ben’s Captain Fantastic isn’t a superhero but he’s getting there.