Sundance 2016: ‘Captain Fantastic’ eccentrically but sincerely copes with grief and change

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Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic
Directed and written by Matt Ross
USA, 2016

Matt Ross, whose 28 Hotel Rooms also premiered at Sundance, writes and directs the whimsical Captain Fantastic. It follows an unconventional father taking care of his many children who’s sent reeling after the untimely death of his depressed wife. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) holds his family very close- so close that his home school parenting style includes lessons in survivalism, heavy courses in philosophy, and very little interaction with the public. It’s an idyllic yet dangerous life that few from the outside world can comprehend. They are regimented in everything they do, and their nuanced intellects intimidate, confuse, delight, and offend those who are not a part of their close knit band. The colorful Captain Fantastic starts off as impossibly eccentric and graduates to a sincere rendering of a family of coping with grief and struggling to stay together.

The multi-talented Mortensen plays Ben with a stern but loving directness. His prowess for swinging between the highs of seeing your children bloom while they simultaneously slip through your hands is delivered with subtle sincerity. The children cast are no less brilliant, a convincingly gifted gang of bright young things who sing, fight, climb, and read without looking pretentious or as though they’re mimicking the dynamics of Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson. Some of their training and actions are outlandish. They’re a bit hard to reconcile as plausible, but the tenacity of the characters’ moral fiber and the actors’ obvious talent shine through to give the film a fresh and heartfelt appeal. The characters convey a courage and curiosity about the world that is raw and unnerves everyone they encounter. Ben’s businessman father-in-law prohibits his attendance at his wife’s funeral, which triggers the whole family taking a road-trip to see that her last wishes are fulfilled. They take their counter-culture utopia out into the world and quickly run into resistance. There are several extraneous scenes that feel inessential to our perception of the children, but the movie starts hitting earnest emotional beats in the last third of its running time. These quality moments surpass the silliness of any plot details that feel beyond the realm of possibility.

As they rove the country with their headstrong father, encountering civilization, the repercussions of their mother’s death affect the children in different ways. Some cling stronger to Ben while others violently push away. George MacKay (Pride, How I Live Now) as the eldest son Bodevan stands out with his authentic-feeling naivety and impressively candid reactions. Gruff Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon, Robot & Frank) as the father-in-law barks his way into the narrative with suffocating patriarchal vigor. His need for absolute control and conventional educational structure is repellent from the get-go, resoundedly in opposition to everything that the free spirit of the family stands for. Just like Ben, he clearly wants the best for his grandchildren’s future, but feels that they can only achieve true success using the well-traveled inroads of privilege and capitalism.

The notion that many things are out of our hands creeps in time and again with Ben’s parenting and situational forces. The fear of death and failure are extremely present as Ben tries to prepare his children for an existence that will hopefully forgo the trappings of America’s empty materialism but has little use for their talents. The inherent value of Captain Fantastic is that it mulls over idealistic visions of true knowledge- not just regurgitations of mandated information but dissections of meaning and the springing forth of independent thought from unspoiled minds. It takes passionate tangents to extremes- gambling on the strength of the family’s love and finding excitement in seeing if impractical plans payoff.

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