BiFan 2016 Review: CAPTAIN FANTASTIC Takes Quirky Journey to Known Destination
There's a certain type of film that'e become prominent and popular among a lot of American indie filmmakers in recent years; I like to call it the Sundance Film (though not all have played at that festival). It's a social realism film, either comedy or drama (or both), usually either about quirky relationships or quirky families, trying to balance their own eccentricities with the confirmity of contemporary western existence. Some of these films are very good (You Can Count On Me, Little Miss Sunshine), while others not so much.
The destination is usually predictable (a satisfactory conclusion, if not always a happy one), and the journey somewhat known (various strange adventures, often involving minor criminal activity or loss of bodily functions). And the journey can often be fun, and the performances and/or writing and direction very good. They are certainly not challenging films, but can be enjoyed in and of themselves when you know you're going to get interesting, enjoyable, non-challenging stories and characters.
Such is Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic, a quirky journey with a quirky family who can't, and don't want to, fit into contemporary American society. Lead by Viggo Mortensen in a role I suspect is very close to his own personality, supported by some impressive young actors as his children, the film dips into some dark places, but never goes too far for the audience, and provides a highly enjoyable yet still completely safe take on the values of parenting according to your own principles.
Ben (Mortensen) lives with his six children off the grid in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. The children learn how to survive, read Fyodor Dostoyevsky and George Eliot from a young age, spout socialist and communist philosophy, are well-fed, clothed, housed, and happy. Their mother, having left months earlier for treatment of a serious mental illness, has committed suicide. Despite her father's (Frank Langella) stern warning, the family decides to attend her funeral in New Mexico, and Ben must guide his children through the entrapments of capitalist society while trying to maintain their values and integrity.
Certainly, this is not a film that covertly transmits its themes or ideas. Ben might seem like the world's greatest dad, teaching them not only advanced critical thinking and to think for themselves far beyond what they might learn in a public school environment, but he also teaches them how to fight, hunt animals, rock climb, and other survival skills that might become necessary in the eventual collapse of civilization. But he is also clearly guilty of his own kind of indoctrination and the children are not equiped with basic social skills (though they have devised quite a clever plan to deal with any police officers that might get suspicious).
These 'Sundance Films' are held together by two things: great actors, and enough diverting scenes (be there drama or comedy, generally the latter) that makes the inevitable journey worthwhile. Luckily, Ross has assembled an excellent cast. As stated, this is a role Mortensen was born to play, as the man happily off the grid and happy in his role as father and teacher, but willing to accept his shortcomings. George MacKay, as the eldest Bo, in the first days of manhood, deciding whether to attend university while at the same time discovering girls, really shines. All the children are excellent (you'd want them to be your siblings), and the 'other' parents - Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn and sister and brother-in-law, Langella as father-in-law - are the perfect dose of blatantly clueless to their own shortcomings, yet nice enough that you don't hate them.
And there are certanly diverting scenes, as cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine gives us glorious shots of the beautiful forests and mountains, and Ross provides scenes of the children both in play and at 'work' as they show off their mental and physical skills far superior to other children their age.
A family dramedy with a bit of substance, a lot of heart, and very little bite, Captain Fantastic will provide the average filmgoer with an enjoyable two hours, but will likely be forgotten quickly.