Peter Bradshaw gave Captain Fantastic one star in the Guardian; describing its protagonist as “essentially a cross between Charles Manson and Captain von Trapp.” Although my reaction to the film completely opposes Bradshaw’s, I adore his description of Ben, the father of 6 children whom he is raising, educating and training in the wild, using survivalist philosophies. Rejecting the structured behaviours and concepts of consumerist America, the family spend their days in physical training, hunting for food and reading the works of Chomsky and Dostoyevsky. All the children are fluent in multiple languages and have the physical agility of professional athletes. Outside the American education system the family have evidently flourished, yet it is apparent that they lack any understanding of the “real world”. Halfway through the film, the oldest of the children, Bo, verbalises this, stating, “unless it comes out of a book I don’t know anything”. Here in lies the film’s central conflict, asking us the audience to question whether Ben’s controversial and extreme approach to parenting is rewarding or reckless. Are the children gifted with the path their father has chosen for them, or damaged? When their isolated life begins to collapse, Captain Fantastic becomes a road movie of sorts, as we witness the children exposed to “normal” American life in supermarkets, through teen romances and around the domestic dinner table. Captain America is a striking piece of work from actor turned director Matt Ross who many may recognise from minor parts in American Psycho and Face/Off. Here, Ross takes us worlds away from such movies.
On route to a funeral in New Mexico, the family’s approaches to the world are challenged. The middle child, Rellian, is filled with anger and blames his Father for their mother’s recent, permanent absence. Meanwhile Bo secretly desires to leave for college. Tensions rise with family members who live outside of their forest paradise, leading to many hilarious and sobering moments. Viggo Mortensen is Ben, bearded and blatant – he hides nothing from his children, honest and blunt, often being cruel to be kind. Mortensen is comfortable here, a substantial actor who captures both his character’s passion and stubborn inconsistencies. George MacKay is Bo, filled with admiration for his father until he meets a goth-like girl in a caravan site, a turning point for the character who faces the truth about his understanding of daily life. Nicholas Hamilton is the frustrated and tortured soul, Rellian who has a striking James Dean or River Phoenix quality. Captain Fantastic deals with mental illness and social isolation beautifully. Perhaps unintentionally, these two themes interlock, the latter creating a lovely visual metaphor for the struggles faced by those who suffer from the likes of anxiety and bipolar disorder. In perhaps the film’s most triumphant sequence, the family sit around their auntie’s dining room table. Humour and sorrow combine in a deeply emotional and uncomfortable scene as cultural differences cause comedic conflict. A complex exploration of fatherhood, Captain Fantastic is both distressing and a comfort, an unconventional road movie filled with equal amounts of misery and magic.
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