In order to exploit as much enjoyment out of Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic, a viewer has to first set aside their irritation at the single minded nature of just about all of the adult characters. When a film is so steadfast in the grip of its hero’s belief system, it can be difficult to separate yourself as the audience and judge solely on the merits of the film instead of whether or not you agree with the action said character is taking. Aside from a blip here or there, Captain Fantastic succeeds because rather than focus on what this fascinating family is saying, we’re instead focusing on the people themselves – and they’re terrific.
Captain Fantastic tells the story of a man named Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who lives out in the woods with his wife and six children. They had hoped to raise their kids away from society and at one with nature, training them to be able bodied and intellectually stimulated by and literature and transcendentalism rather than be corrupted by dreaded capitalism and technology. However, when his wife dies suddenly he must re-acquaint his children with the “real world”, a father and law who despises him (Frank Langella) and a society that he doesn’t trust to change his children for the better.
The biggest hurdle that the film must overcome lies in the script where we can’t wrap our heads around the idea that Ben and Langella’s Jack couldn’t be civil for more than two seconds to realize the validity in both their stances. Ben sees the benefits of living immersed in the outdoors, demonstrating how his children are of a high intellect, care greatly about philosophy and nature and aren’t distracted by video games. Jack meanwhile believes that it’s ruining any chance of a possible future for them as it disassociates them with real society. Both have valid point and both go absurdly out of their way to invalidate the other. The film does a better job at showcasing the positives of both ideals, but the film would have been that much better had the script somehow managed to merge those two ideologies.
Regardless of the narrative inconsistencies, the story shines through and is carried along by some superb performances and craft. From the very first moment we’re introduced to Ben’s home and paradise, we understand just why he’d become so attached to it. Shot with a lush warmth by Stéphane Fontaine the photography immerses us into that world and carries on into the portion of the film where our characters are interacting with church goers and supermarket intendants rather than simply traipsing about in the woods. Fontaine captures the magnificent, natural colors of the outdoors standing contrast to the get up the cast often wears, from the garish suit that Ben dons in honor of his late wife, to the daughters red hair and the flower crowns that decorate it.
The music by Alex Somers (who attended Berklee College of Music and is dating Icelandic musician Jonsi-of Sigur Ros fame-explaining many of the similarities in the score) breathes additional light and levity in the film, touching on hints of grief when appropriate but, more than anything, seeming to celebrate life. The score is joyous and both as accompaniment to the film as well as it’s own separate entity is a beautiful work of music. It more than elevated some of the quieter scenes, proving to be a subtle backbone to the film itself.
Mortensen has always had an interesting career trajectory, especially following The Lord of the Rings where he could have picked any and all films offered to him with little issue. However, instead of taking an obvious route, he’s mainly stuck to smaller projects and he may have found his niche in Ross’s film. As the sturdy but venerable Ben, a man who makes many mistakes but who’s fierce, determined love for his kids shines through, he simply embodies the role. There’s no mistaking the actor and he may not be able to disappear into the role despite a shaggy mop of hair and heavy beard trying it’s mightest, but he puts enough personal touches into it and brings such a worldly wisdom that we believe him and the words he says. We believe his motivation and earnest nature even when we can’t fathom the idea of the rigorous training his puts his children through. It’s the actor at his very best.
What’s even greater is that he’s matched beat for beat by the actors playing his children. George MacKay as his eldest with University ambitions is a particular standout, his hardships in socializing with others his age proving to bring forth the most tangible insecurity. From him to the youngest there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, and the chemistry is undeniable.
Unlikely to make waves as the year goes on, Captain Fantastic won’t ever have a huge audience but it deserves one. Whether it’s for it’s family drama, beautiful scenery or stunning performances, there’s a lot to love here. From its unabashed optimism and it’s pull on the heartstrings storyline about what it means to be a parent and how they grow with their kids overtime, for better and worse, Captain Fantastic is an earnest, touching story about a father trying the best he can to raise his kids in a house of love and curiosity, and their belief in him that helps keep him afloat.