“Captain Fantastic” might not be the hero we need, but he is the one we deserve. Matt Ross writes and directs this inspiring drama set in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, with Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) raising his six children off-the-grid by himself because his wife is in an institution for treatment of bipolar disorder. When Ben receives a startling and shocking notice that his wife has killed herself, he takes his children on a road trip to New Mexico to attend their mother’s funeral, despite warnings that his disapproving father-in-law (Frank Langella) will have him arrested if he disrupts the ceremony. Events surrounding the funeral, including one of his children being severely injured, one of them wishing to go to college, and one of them siding with his father-in-law, force Ben to reevaluate his choices regarding his children’s upbringing and education after living in isolation for over a decade. “Captain Fantastic” is rated R for adult language and brief graphic nudity.
“Captain Fantastic” is an outstanding film, and one of my personal favorites of the year. The movie fires on every single cylinder that you can imagine. After watching the trailer, I sensed some comedy, but it mostly played as a drama. That trailer is nowhere near the kind of experience that you are getting yourself into with this one. I laughed, teared up a little, and felt great concern for the many different kinds of people within Ross’s world. This is a tightly paced, beautifully crafted film that doesn’t have to rely heavily on art to get its point across about life and its many themes and lessons. I’ve always thought that the best films should always have you leaving the theater seeking to be a better person, and “Captain Fantastic” is one of those feel good stories too charming not to fall in love with. It’s a movie that showcases the magnitude of importance for family, and the one in this story always kept me interested with their many trials and tribulations with the outside world, that feels foreign to them.
What really opened my eyes during this movie was the experience of getting to watch people from two different worlds and cultures, and watch them interact with each other through some hilarious, but truthful results in their comparisons. On one side, you have the main protagonists who live in the woods and use as little resources as necessary to live the life that they desire. They are very well educated and strong enough to survive on their own if it ever came to it. On the other side, you have the people in our everyday world. The big houses, multitude of food choices, and pop culture invested. They are truly spoiled, but never a loss in this comparison. That’s what I truly love about Ross’s film; no one side is ever better suited for life. Both worlds have things that they do better than the other. It surely would be easy for the filmmakers to weigh heavily towards the side of Mortensen and our protagonists, but they are smart enough to know that there are some genuine concerns within this world that seems so easy. Some of the most enjoyable aspects to me were seeing this family reacting with concern for our video games, fashion sense, and even obese people when compared to the nearly unhealthy skinny bodies of our characters. It never feels forced for comedy, and instead you can sit back and learn because everything is very thought-provoking. There are aspects of your own life that Ross forces you to think about, and he does it without it ever feeling overdone or preachy.
The acting is very well layered and full of enjoyable performances from a mostly young cast. There are six different children in this immediate family that dominates the camera time, but all of them get their time to shine, delivering a vast array of emotional responses when they find out the untimely passing of their Mother. I found myself fully invested in them because their innocence never feels like weakness. These are children who despite their age, are very capable of handling themselves, and all of that comes from Mortensen’s Father/Teacher combo. Viggo has always been a very methodical actor, but as Cash we see a man coming undone at the very eye-opening experiences that his children are having. He’s doing everything for them on his own, so we feel mutually exhausted when the mental walls start coming down midway through. Mortensen is perfect for this role, and his love for these children really became quite evident early on in the film, when the concept of protector was taken to new levels. It was also great to see Frank Langella, even if his role is very brief. When you first meet Langella’s character, you get the sense that he is angry with Mortensen because of the passing of his daughter, but the movie is brilliant enough to really make you see things from his side of the table. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn are also in the movie, and offer a startling contrast reflective of the naive methods that we use on our children everyday.
The film’s visuals felt very much like a Jean-Marc Vallet film, complete with mental representation on-screen for what our main character is going through emotionally, as well as flashbacks and hallucination scenes that really paint the picture for what kind of things were going on with this family before we ever saw them. Vallet is always someone who paints a psychological picture first, and Ross certainly has done his homework in communicating raw emotions without ever beating the audience over the head deliberately with obvious themes and moods.
Overall, “Captain Fantastic” is a hero and a film that we can all believe in. The ending is beautifully deranged, but it never lost me at any point during its jaw-dropping visuals. The film offers a humble look at the thoughts and ideals that we instill in our children, and how you’re never too old to ever be wrong. Ross crafts an above average drama with some unexpected twists and turns along the way that results in a humorous and enlightening showcase that tugs at the heartstrings of any parent who seeks the best for their children. Very much so one of my favorite films of the year.