I am not going to beat around the bush. The bottom line is this: Captain Fantastic is a bloody fantastic film. There have been many films about the parent-child relationship over the years, but not many of them have managed to be quite so heartfelt, funny, painfully realistic and thought-provoking as this one that’s helmed by director Matt Ross and led by veteran actor Viggo Mortensen.
Captain Fantastic explores the life of Ben Cash (Mortensen in a role deserving of his Oscar nomination), a father of six who is raising his children out in the woods in isolation from the outside world. Ben is completely dedicated to his children’s upbringing, but his method is more a mixture of a hippie bootcamp and Lord of the Flies than an adventurous summer camping trip. The film starts with his eldest son (played by British actor George MacKay), face smeared with war paint, hunting and killing a dear in the middle of the forest. He takes his children rock-climbing in the rain. He teaches them how to read and analyse the bills of rights, novels like Lolita, and even lead them in celebration of Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas.
For Ben and his wife Leslie, this is not just a rejection of American capitalism; they view their parenting as revolutionary – a return to a more wholesome way of living. Of course, the downside of this upbringing is that the children can explain the meaning of ‘Moaism’, for example, but they are not able to assimilate into the real world. When a heartbreaking tragedy strikes their family, Ben is forced to bring his children back into society. Along the way, he comes into contact with his sister (played by Kathryn Hahn), her teenage children, and his in-laws (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) who view him as a danger to their grandchildren.
Mortensen’s turn as the idealistic, caring father of six is designed to tug at the heartstrings. His character’s method of parenting both challenges and frightens you. There is no doubting the love Ben has for his children and his wife, but as the film progresses, you begin to see his failings as well as his heart. One minute, you agree with what he is doing as a father. The next, you begin to question whether he is taking things too far. Only an actor of Mortensen’s calibre could manage to give Ben such an immense sense of humanity and tenderness, making him neither a hero nor a villain in his own story. With Mortensen as such a force of nature, huge credit must be given to the film for managing to find six capable young actors to play his children. The strong bond Mortensen shares with his younger performers are obvious and he gives them all the tools they need to spar with him in every scene.
Captain Fantastic might not be garnering the same level of attention as the likes of Moonlight and La La Land, but this is not at all indicative of the film’s quality. Captain Fantastic is nothing if not deserving of your time, your money, your laughter, your tears, and definitely your undivided attention.
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