Captain Fantastic (2016)
I've been mulling over this review for little over a month and have watched this film on four separate occasions in an attempt to arrive at a place where I could do justice to this beautiful, complicated film that's become a personal firm favourite since I first watched it.
Written and directed by Matt Ross, the actor most famously known for his portrayal of Gavin Belson in the popular television comedy Silicon Valley, Captain Fantastic is an equally thrilling and fascinating family dramedy about a family that's been living in the forest in the Pacific northwestern United States being forced back into society by circumstances.
Ben and Leslie Cash are two former liberal activists who became disillusioned with crass consumerism, commercialism and amorality of capitalism and American life, choosing thereafter to go live in the wilderness and raise their children there. They give their children a rigorous education in left-wing politics, philosophy, science, classical arts, literature and instill survivalist skills in them — the point of which is to teach self-reliance, critical thinking and analysis, and coexistence with nature. They even celebrate "Noam Chomsky day" instead of Christmas day, where they extol the virtues of labour movement thought and lambast the consumerist gifting market that has come to define Christmas.
Early on in the movie, we find out that Leslie Cash, played by Trin Miller, had been hospitalised for bipolar disorder and subsequently committed suicide, which is what gives the story its inertia. Ben Cash, portrayed Viggo Mortensen, armed with the knowledge that his wife wanted to be cremated, learns this his father-in-law plans to hold a traditional funeral and burial for Leslie, and threatens to have Ben arrested if he attends the funeral. After initially deciding not to attend and forbidding his children from doing so, Ben changes his mind (after some cajoling from his children) and leads them on a road trip in a bus to the funeral.
The lead and undeniable shining star of this movie is Viggo Mortensen, who portrays a tough but adoring father in Ben Cash — who seems to me an elegant mixture of the paternalistic and strict but caring Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music and the intellectual, passionate and enigmatic but emotional V from V For Vendetta. Mortensen allows this man to be vexing, arrogant, harshly truthful, intelligent, affectionate and yet always completely humane. He challenges his children to constantly be intelligent, creative, committed and aware of their surroundings, and can overdo it at times like any well-meaning parent. He is also an unflinching advocate for his wife's final wishes, which brings him to conflict with his in-laws.
Although Mortensen is the undeniable leading light, he is surrounded by a surprisingly wonderful supporting cast of children who each shine in their own way, respectively. Ben and Leslie's children, Bodevan (George McKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) — who are aged seven to eighteen — provide a six-strong company of varying intrigues, anxieties and energies to complement and contrast Mortensen's performance. These voraciously intelligent, physically fit and altogether capable children mirror their father in many ways, but are made different from him by the mental and emotional contortions of their youth. Armed with names unique to them alone in the world, or so their father claims, they scale cliffs and hunt for food by day, read classic literature by night, discuss history and Marxism, and are even formally tested.
The eventual departure from the forest in order to attend Leslie's funeral temporarily turns this into a road movie and introduces supermarkets, trailer parks and suburban family dinners to the children of this family for the first time, allowing us to, after having been bombarded with their unerring brilliance, see them trying to navigate and apply themselves in unfamiliar situations, which makes for great humour and pathos in many moments. It also puts the flaws of their upbringing to the light, such as their lack of social skills. Culture shocks and culture clashes make themselves apparent during a family dinner at the home of Ben's sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Dave (Steve Zahn), where Ben's children's table manner, sense of humour and understanding of what Nike is make for tense, fascinating moments where even the audience is faced with situations odd enough to have never even crossed their minds.
The meeting, confrontation and subsequent interactions with Leslie's parents, Abigail (Ann Dowd) and Jack (Frank Langella) sombers the mood for the second half of the film and shrinks the personal and philosophical concerns of the film and it's characters from grand ideas ranging from quantum physics to political ideology, to more pedestrian but nevertheless significant questions about parenthood and love. As Jack, Frank Langella gives a heartening performance as a scorned father facing the man he believes took his daughter from him and a concerned grandfather, standing firm in his insistence that his daughter's children must make their way into the world and lead lives of some discernable appreciable value.
Ultimately, what is most impressive about this film is that it isn't really about living in the wild or pubescent teenagers critically analyzing Nabokov's Lolita with the sharpness and mental acuity of doctoral candidates, it's that it's about family and the issues that might befall one's very own. Obviously the circumstances of this family's drama may be unique, but the nature of the manner in which they're interacted with certainly aren't. Unlikely? Certainly, but not unique. The natural light cinematography gives the film a vibrancy befitting to each of the sets and settings it goes through and is second only to the engrossing, often awkward-sounding but also weirdly naturalistic dialogue.
This is a movie that isn't replete with moralistic diatribes or establishing shots. It is solely focused on the people in it. It's greatest failure is that the third and final act is paced frustratingly and the ending is sentimental and completely unearned. So completely unearned is the ending, in fact, that it seems like a non sequitur. It's an annoying blemish I can't ignore on what I felt was a movie that may not stand the test of time but is certainly worth the watch. It doesn't always answers the questions it asks, but it is thought-provoking. Most importantly, it is full of heart and never forgets to be entertaining.
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