PLOT: Deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raises his six children by himself after his wife is hospitalised for mental illness- exclusively teaching them about left leaning theologies and wilderness survival skills. When news arrives of her suicide, the family must venture in to the real world to attend a funeral which they aren’t invited to. These kids may be book smart, but having never left the wilderness, they sure as hell aren’t street smart.
Despite the enormous amount of praise Captain Fantastic has received from both critics and audiences, I admit to being more than a little trepidatious before viewing. Crowd pleasing movies that premiered at Sundance don’t usually sit well with my tastes- and after unexpectedly loving Swiss Army Man, I assumed my quota for admiring quirky kitsch that premiered at America’s leading film festival was well and truly filled for the year.
Everything about Captain Fantastic should annoy me; it’s a quirky family drama, with more than a hint of pretension. It’s the kind of film where the comedy all stems from having a basic knowledge of European literature, 20th century totalitarianism and similar views to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn on the subject of capitalism- left-leaning arguments I agree with, yet find annoyingly irksome when I see them discussed by free spirited hippies on the big screen. Captain Fantastic has all these elements and far more; heck, in the opening ten minutes one of the central characters describes himself as a Maoist and refuses to talk to women who have been brought up worshipping at the capitalist altar.
The difference between Captain Fantastic and the other movies that have characters discussing such heavy themes is that here, everything has a ring of truth. In mainstream comedy, characters talking about left-leaning politics to such a banal degree are usually the punchline to some SJW joke, whilst in arthouse cinema, namely the irritating pseudo-intellectualism of Jean-Luc Goddard, they are portrayed in such a self-important way, it makes me feel like moving to the centre-right of politics. Writer/director Matt Ross never romanticises any of the political views, nor does he make them an easy punchline for right leaning audiences to use as a punching bag for liberals. Ross grew up in a commune, so his depiction of their living situation is equal handed; these kids are getting a valuable education in many ways, yet are being put at risk and not getting proper emotional growth as a result of living in the wild.
From the very opening scene, Ross creates a bizarre fantasia that has more in common with a post-apocalyptic society than a commune. Before the characters make their way out into the real world, you’d be forgiven for assuming this is taking place on the fringes of a Hunger Games style societal wasteland, or depicts the life of children growing up on the inside of a cult. The first scene is utterly engrossing, depicting a violent game hunt that leads to a disgusting ritual which the eldest son must perform to “become a man”- it is far from the quirky Sundance fare that Captain Fantastic has been promoted as being.
Although we see many positives to the children’s education, Ross goes out of his way to make sure that this is depicted as a dangerous place to live. It is admirably even handed in it’s portrayal of an emotionally stunted father figure, who empathetically believes he really is doing the best for his children- portrayed in a characteristically excellent manner from Viggo Mortensen, he’s one of the year’s most complex protagonists. He seems confused by his own ideologies, teaching his children about the evils of totalitarianism, whilst making them lead their life under his tyrannical rule. His commitment to their education is equal parts commendable and risible. How can you really teach children about the world, when you’re making them tackle survival skills tests, countless miles away from society?
Ross defies narrative expectations when the family leaves the wilderness behind, ignoring any typical “fish out of water” storylines and avoiding any stereotypical jokes that accentuate how cut-off from societal norms the family have become. Instead of being funny, witnessing eldest son Bodevan’s failure to speak to women due to a lack of pop culture knowledge is nothing short of heartbreaking. This isn’t to say the movie isn’t funny, because there are more sharp one-liners here than in any studio comedy released this year. After seeing this movie, you will definitely be referring to cola as “poison water” for the rest of your life.
Ross’s screenplay is winning due to how much you empathise with every character; the inter-character conflicts are all the more interesting due to the fact that each side genuinely believes they have the best answer to the situation, with the results to back it up. Each character has been brought up with a particular idealism- from the hard-left beliefs of Ben and his kids, to the centre ground taken by every character in the “real world”, even the worst behavioural impulses are rooted in important moral lessons. It helps to ensure that Captain Fantastic is a rich character study that will continue to reward upon multiple viewings.
In many ways, Captain Fantastic is a coming of age movie in reverse. The kids have already learned about the world and had their minds opened- but now they need to fit into modern society, instead of finding their own distinctive voices. Although the narrative formula looks familiar from the outside, Matt Ross has subtly subverted expectations of road trip and coming of age tales. I wouldn’t be surprised if this grows in stature to become a true American classic.