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Be sure to listen to our in-depth review of the film (above), where we disagree on a number of issues. Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is a man with little hope for the modern world and as such, moved himself and his family into the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest, where some of his six children have lived their entire lives. Self-sustaining, hunting and growing their own food, Ben doesn’t necessarily reject the conveniences of the modern world but more how civilization has fallen under the trappings of consumerism and collective neglect.
When his wife falls ill and is hospitalized for bi-polar disorder and eventually commits suicide, Ben is told he is not welcome at the funeral. Nonetheless, he defies her parent’s wishes and packs the children into their modified bus and drives into the real world, where they are put to the test as comparisons between the freedoms of the modern way of life seem restrictive next to the teachings of Ben and his children. As cultures clash and complications from years of separation bring tensions to the surface, there is growth still to be had and decisions to be made.
Written and directed by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is a strange mix of perplexing themes that strive to paint our world in failure while illustrating the gaps in raising a family strictly against the system. Drawing upon some earlier influences, especially Peter Weir‘s 1986 similarly-themed Mosquito Coast, Ross bends it more with humor than tragedy, even if the subject is nothing to be laughed at. While Ross is clearly making a point, he uses the conflict of Leslie’s final wishes as the catalyst to drive the wedge deeper between Ben and the rest of the world to demonstrate the incomparable lifestyles and the incompatibility of putting the two together.
The central motif is the disparity between knowledge gained from books and wilderness experience and learning through the school system, trying to discern which is the more beneficial. Naturally, there is no real answer, even if we are meant to lean on the side of Ben. And it is Ben who holds the power of his position with the most assured but troubling hand, “training” his children for adulthood with equality that strengthens their minds and bodies yet clearly stunts them socially and and even a little ethically. We see the spectrum of that for example when Ben attempts show the value of his methods over the American public school by having his six-year-old daughter not only recite the Bill of Rights but summarize an intellectually-poignant opinion of it while her public school cousins seem to have no understanding of what it even is. Then there is Ben’s eldest boy Bodevan (George MacKay), who is a genius-level thinker that has no idea how to even talk to a girl, ready to propose and promise children to the first one that kisses him.
On the other side of Ben is Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella), who is a extremely wealthy, living on a grand estate with Leslie’s mother (Ann Dowd). He is entirely against what Ben and Leslie decided to do, and now that she has died, blames Ben for everything. Jack is set up as the villain of sorts, his belief that Ben is endangering his grandchildren, and spends much of the movie aggressively denouncing Ben, coming off a bit one dimensional. But the real issue is Ben himself who we see in the first half challenging his children to overcome hardships, to learn that there is no rescue party coming and to think and act. At one point, his ten-year-old son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) nearly breaks his arms when he slips on a cliff face while rock climbing, and Ben forces him to solve the problem on his own, yet back in civilization, when his teenaged daughter falls and hurts herself, Ben flip flops entirely on his philosophy and decides he’s unfit and plans to leave them in Jack’s care.
There’s no denying Mortensen’s presence in Captain Fantastic. He’s dynamic and nurturing and compelling throughout, as are the talented young cast who make up the Cash clan, and yet there is a distorted path to the story that feels untrue, never really addressing the larger issue of what Ben has created in the forest. Jack makes several solid points that are backed up by the actions of Ben and his kids, and yet the movie wants us to believe that he is different from a cult leader, of which he absolutely is, even if he is teaching a broad world view. It skirts this with an ending that suggests there is defeat in Ben’s choices, all of which feels a bit unearned.
Captain Fantastic starts great, introducing us to a truly inventive and curious setting that is only superficially explored before transporting us into the familiar in an attempt to show how bland and lost we all truly are, yet loses that momentum by focusing on Ben’s wishes to see his dead wife’s last wishes fulfilled. By the time the film reaches its clean and tidy ending, all interest in these characters is mostly spent, leaving it feeling unfulfilled.
Movie description: Captain Fantastic is a 2016 comedy-drama about a family living in the deep forest who must face the world beyond when circumstances force them out of the woods.
Director(s): Matt Ross
Actor(s): Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella