Captain Fantastic (2016)
Starring- Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd
Director- Matt Ross
R- language and brief graphic nudity
When tragedy disrupts a family living off the grid in the wilderness, they find themselves forced into a long-overdue encounter with the civilization from which patriarch Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) has so vigilantly shielded them.
Captain Fantastic is very good and also very weird in a manner that sometimes enriches and other times undercuts it, largely because it attempts to assume the appearance of normalcy much too soon and much too dramatically and occasionally struggles to navigate its comedic and dramatic elements. It’s a high-concept movie with low-concept execution — stronglow-concept execution, but it’s still a touch less challenging and unique than promised.
This family isn’t the typical group of survivalists — Ben Cash took his children off the grid because of his disdain for capitalist America; they’re admirers of Trotsky and Mao. By day, Ben teaches his children to hunt and conquer the natural world; by night, he forces them to read and deliver extensive reports about books on politics, sociology, history, and quantum mechanics. As a result, his six kids have professional athletes’ physiques and are literal geniuses — his eight-year-old can recite the Bill of Rights from memory and analyze recent Supreme Court decisions, and his oldest has secretly applied to every prestigious university in the country and been accepted at all of them.
I think the reason it comes across weird and tough to relate to is that the movie embraces the most cartoonish stereotypes of the radical fringes of both ends of the political spectrum and blends them into one group of characters. There’s so little middle ground in the Cash family’s worldview that it’s difficult to give them any sense of personal history outside this movie. The liberal elements of Ben’s personality manifest a little more distinctly than the conservative ones, which makes every scene of survivalist oddities feel like an out-of-character moment. Ben reads as fairly typical of radical leftist intellectuals, and I understand why that would drive him into the wilderness to inoculate his children against capitalist society; naturally, that means he’ll have to teach his children how to hunt, grow food, and survive the elements. How he decided that they needed to learn to fight with knives and should celebrate their first successful hunts by eating the animal’s raw heart on the spot is somewhat more difficult to understand. It’s like if the characters in Red Dawn belonged to a commune.
My difficulty accepting this on a character level may simply be the extreme nature of it all. After all, there are people out there who live this way. It’s that the movie feels like a series of attack-ad stereotypes magnified to the point of comedy and then played for drama. The characters celebrate Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas, and they also go mountain-climbing during thunderstorms. Make no mistake, the movie absolutely intends for some of this to play as comedy, and it’s very effective when the line is clear; unfortunately, it isn’t always. It can be hard to tell what you’re supposed to laugh at and what you’re supposed to take seriously, and I find myself doing both at times where it didn’t seem to be in line with the film’s intent. Go the wilderness commune route, show us a family living off the land, but don’t exaggerate it to the point that it’s tough to empathize because the characters are being arbitrarily weird about everything.
But the truly strange thing, in the end, is that for all the trouble the movie goes to establishing these characters’ worldview, the story doesn’t appear to be all that interested in it in the long term. It’s impossible to outline the movie’s plot without talking about politics, and individual scenes don’t go long before characters start monologuing on one ideological point or another, but it terms of its emotional focus, Captain Fantastic is actually very apolitical. It isn’t subjecting any of its more interesting ideas to analysis. It takes its unusual premise and walks it through a somewhat typical story about grieving and parenthood, just centered on an especially strange group of characters. The politics and the family’s unusual circumstances are just window dressing. The movie is uninterested in its characters’ thoughts about the world. Its arc only attacks the social isolation Ben has forced upon his children and the fact that he makes them do really dangerous things, both of which are obvious and don’t exactly inspire a whole lot of reflection: “Do not give small children giant knives as a Noam Chomsky Day present, got it.” That isn’t much of an insight into the human condition.
But the movie’s got it where it counts. The story it chooses to tell is perhaps too ordinary in light of its extraordinary trappings, but it’s nevertheless very well-told. As both writer and director, Matt Ross knows how to get to you and keep you invested in his characters’ fates; nearly all of Captain Fantastic’s biggest emotional beats, even the ones compromised by plot holes or general unreality, hit hard. It’s able to establish and develop its characters’ personalities in subtle but consistent ways, defining them through small actions that become trends over time. Ross is capable of surprising with the roles his characters ultimately end up taking; he’s always peeling back layers and adding new dimensions that cast the things they say and do in a new light and keep them feeling fresh and complex.
What most impresses me is that he resists what surely must have been a powerful temptation, in a movie with this setup, to paint in terms of heroes and villains. The movie’s foremost achievement, in my mind, is that it forces you to ask whether Ben is a good or bad father and leaves you straining to arrive at a satisfying answer. There are at least two characters in this movie I should have hated because they both do things that press major buttons for me — Ben, because he’s isolated his children, making it extremely for them to figure out who they are and what they want out of life and nearly impossible for them to manage on their own if they end up deciding against his lifestyle; and his father-in-law, Frank Langella, for being unnecessarily totalitarian about his daughter and in complete denial of who she is. But everyone has a vice, and everyone has a virtue, most of it centered on Ben’s complexity.
I like that the movie allows him to be right about certain things — his approach to educating his children, for example, is pretty close to spot-on; there’s one scene, possibly my favorite albeit for entirely personal reasons, where he talks to one of his daughters about a book she just read and basically ends up teaching the exact literature class I want to be offered at every school in the world. His focus on physical fitness, while undoubtedly excessive, is also admirable. He loves his children, and many of his methods get results. But he’s also sequestered them in a forest and raised them so that they only have a theoretical understanding of the world around them, one that immediately collapses in the scant moments when they are forced to interact with it. And, as stated, teaching knife-fighting to children probably isn’t the greatest idea.
So there’s that conflict — you recognize the ways that Ben’s parenting style is both benefiting and hurting his children; by extension, you recognize why his extended family looks upon it with no small amount of concern, while also wishing that they would open their minds enough to see that he’s doing some good as well. It creates a family dynamic that is, by its very nature, complicated and a premise readymade for the kind of back-and-forth, cause-and-effect drama that’s so riveting in movies like this. Every character has a completely justified point of view and a completely unjustified one, and the movie’s able to pull you back and forth, putting you on one person’s side in one scene and another’s in the next. As a result, what could have been another twee indie movie takes on more weight and avoids the dry moments such films tend to walk through every now and then.
It might not have the intellectual meat I hoped for, and it tends to be a hodgepodge of occasionally dissonant concepts, but Captain Fantastic is nevertheless big-hearted and engaging. Of 2016’s stereotypical indie movies, it might be the best. And I mean that as higher praise than it sounds.