2016. Directed by Matt Ross.
There are countless stories about families who chose to live off the grid, with each version either being a cautionary tale about isolation or a sly commentary on the advantages of living outside the comforts of modern society. Matt Ross’s exceptional feature film, Captain Fantastic manages to walk the divide between these extremities, delivering a dissenting lead performance, vibrant watercolor visuals, and a touching script that both glorifies personal freedom and stresses the importance of societal connections.
Ben and Leslie are raising their six children in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Ben is a charismatic intellectual who believes capitalist society is fraudulent and uses philosophy, classical literature, and social discourse as a means to instill his world view in his children. A tragedy leads to the family returning to the confines of the big city, challenging Ben’s authority as his patchwork clan mingles with accepted civilization, bringing to the surface rebellious intentions, fatherly guilt, and familial discord. As a result, Ben is forced to confront his perceived nobility and the cost of raising children in his own, elitist vision rather than the flawed, but worthwhile reality in which we’re all a apart of.
Viggo Mortensen gives one of the strongest performances of his career as Ben. Ross’s script is full of memorable and hilarious exchanges, the bulk of which involve Mortensen explaining the workings of the world to his children with an anthropological presentation, devoid of emotion or connection. Initially, the various rhetoric used by the children to verbally spar with their father is unappealing, appearing to be a counterculture refutation delivered with cult like fervor. However, as the narrative unfolds, the various philosophical and religious dissertations become symbols of Ben’s sorrowful existence and the educational prison that he has built around his children, in which learned anarchist knowledge is the key to their deliverance.
Stephane Fontain’s cinematography blooms with natural colors, capturing the rugged landscape and Ben’s commune with wide shots that highlight the splendor of the hidden sanctuary. Courtney Hoffman’s costume design, particularly with the family’s ceremonial attire in the first act has a lived in quality that becomes more and more removed as the the film continues. The highlight comes in the family’s hippie drenched livery that they don to attend a service that is the centerpiece of the story. While the costumes have an out of time theme, it’s the idea that this family, for better or worse, is a singular unit that resonates.
Captain Fantastic is a story about familial identity, and while it is somewhat predictable, it’s the journey that matters. Everything is in transition. The emerald forests give way to looming towers of concrete while the children begin as supplicants and grow into independent and often comically self aware renegades. The film’s greatest concession, that every rebellion ends on the home front, doesn’t diminish Ben’s philosophy, but rather welcomes it’s turbulent mantra into the merry go round of parenthood, ending with a tear inducing rendition of an 80’s classic that heals the wounds of regret with compassion and acceptance.
Available now for digital rental, Captain Fantastic is a predictable, but profoundly moving example of picaresque parenthood. While the viewer only gets a glimpse into the family’s rigid customs and anti-capitalist anthems, these concepts are interchangeable with the various rites and traditions of any family. Parenting, and the importance of family is what this film is ultimately about. Featuring an unforgettable performance and a genuinely heartwarming story about the importance of moderation and acceptance of what we cannot change, if you’re looking for an uplifting viewing experience, Captain Fantastic will not disappoint.