Captain Fantastic 2016
Directed by Matt Ross
Starring Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Frank Langella, Steve Zahn
A father has moved away from the city and is bringing up his six children single handed in the forest. Their mother is in hospital with an on-going illness. Then a phone call changes everything and the family have to face the disapproval of their grandfather – and defy him by carrying out their mother’s wishes.
It looks so idyllic from the outside. The lush, never-ending pine forest, life in the open air, organic food and none of the restrictions or conventions that go with city life. But this is no playground. The unconventional upbringing that Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has created for his six children is disciplined and demanding, with a strict home schooling timetable and rigorous physical exercise, including rock climbing. He designed it with his wife, when they left their former lives to pursue this alternative lifestyle, but now she’s in hospital, he’s bringing up the children single handed and he’s risen to the challenge. In his own way.
What seems like a dysfunctional family actually functions rather well, even though some fundamental questions appear early on. It’s a film that tackles a number of themes, appearances versus reality being one, alternative lifestyles another and, inevitably, child rearing. There are more, but the important thing is that they mesh together to form an engaging whole.
For parents in the audience, the child rearing theme will rise to the top of the pile and, at some stage or another, they’ll feel they’re on familiar ground. Writer/director Matt Ross has based the film on his experiences as a father and has created a crystal-clear portrait of how children learn. How they swallow without question whatever they’re taught and repeat it with often unnerving accuracy. True, Ben has taught them a lot, as well as the survival skills that form part of his curriculum. And he’s taught them his personal political views as well, which the youngsters repeat at the drop of a hat. Is this indoctrination or just teaching?
That’s just the start of the increasing doubts about his abilities as a father. In the eyes of father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella), he’s irresponsible, giving each child a present of a hunting knife (they don’t celebrate Christmas, but mark their own Noam Chomsky Day). It’s a lethal weapon, after all, but they’ve been taught how to use it, so will it be safer in their hands than in those of an adult?
All of which makes Captain Fantastic a thought-provoking film, but don’t think for one moment that it’s sombre. It’s remarkably funny, with much of the humour coming from the gloriously uninhibited children who ask the boldest of questions in all innocence, questions that would embarrass most adults. But not Ben. There’s more than a little of the child in him as well, because he believes in telling them the unvarnished truth, even about sensitive subjects.
The film is beautifully done, visually making the most of the Pacific North West scenery and with a perceptive script and a fine ensemble cast. Evidently, nobody warned Mortensen about the perils of starring alongside children, because here he is with no less than six – although you could argue it’s only five as the oldest, Bo (the excellent George MacKay) is essentially an adult. Not that Mortensen tries to compete with them, so they make a convincing family ensemble.
There are occasional moments when the film turns a touch too rose tinted, but they are only moments. It’s a film with genuine warmth, an earthy charm, compassion and humour. It makes you laugh, think and feel uplifted by the end. Which is also a good description of the Captain himself.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★