(4.5 / 5)
Ben Cash is not your average dad.
A grizzled hippy living off the grid in the forests of Washington State, his daily routine includes stalking deer, rock climbing, and self-defense; all accompanied by his six extraordinary children. They all speak several languages, have undergone rigorous physical training, and are versed in both literary, scientific, and political theory – though they’ve all been raised as diehard libertarian socialists, of course. When their mother dies in hospital, the band set out in a repurposed school bus to attend her (decidedly Christian) funeral; despite the threats of her father, Jack, who holds Ben at least partly responsible for Leslie’s death.
Ben, played by Viggo Mortensen, is a great father and teacher. Firm but patient, open-minded but disciplined, he’s a free-thinking fanatic who’s yet to be convinced that this is not the ideal way to raise children. It takes this encounter with the real world for him to begin to realize the cost of total self-sufficiency. Having not appeared in any films in 2015, and only a couple of philosophical art-house flicks the year before, you could almost believe Mortensen has been living in the forest all this time; he fits the character so well. The shirt Ben wears on the film’s poster is actually Mortensen’s own. Just as impressive, though, is the ensemble cast who make up Ben’s miniature band of rebels and eccentrics.
There’s the eldest, Bodevan (George MacKay), a former Trotskyist – with strong opinions on the distinction between that and a Trotskyite” – and recent convert to Maoism, who’s secretly been accepted to all the Ivy League universities but has never kissed a girl. The next, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), wants to celebrate Christmas – rather than Noam Chomsky Day – and angrily denounces them all as “freaks”. The twins, Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso), like to communicate privately in Esperanto; much to their father’s chagrin. Zaja (Shree Crooks) is into taxidermy and has a shrine up in his treehouse – it’s less serial-killer-y than it sounds. The youngest Nai (Charlie Shotwell) is just beginning to learn about sex, which Ben relates to him with his customary open-mindedness and transparency. They also make for a well-honed unit, expertly debriefing after “Operation Free The Food” or getting rid of a nosy cop with some amusing happy-clappy improv.
While Jack, played with cold fury and twinkly-eyed superciliousness by Frank Langella, initially seems like a straightforward adversary, Captain Fantastic bears out his concerns – to an extent. Ben’s commitment to thoroughly educating his children might mean any one of his kids can intellectually trounce his sister Harper’s (Kathryn Hahn) Xbox-obsessed brats, or most adults for that matter, but has left them as judgmental onlookers in a world not really equipped to deal with a society that places a premium on . While their culture shock is mostly played for laughs – they wonder why everyone is so fat and decry their granddad’s villa as an “unethical use of space!“) – the film also touches upon the possible deeper impact of this seemingly utopian, but elitist, upbringing.
Captain Fantastic is that rare film that manages to be both sentimental and spine-tingling, often simultaneously. It’s also true to itself. Just as the dear departed Leslie Cash (Trin Miller) was a Buddhist, so the film, both written and directed by Matt Ross, is all about finding the Middle Way. A smart, heartfelt indie dramedy – that’s my poster quote, folks – Stéphane Fontaine’s is as clear as crystal spring water, and Alex Somer’s scores is one of the few I’ve heard that manages to make minimalist, almost ambient choral music uplifting rather than creepy. Finely balanced and highly entertaining, touching on both joy and despair, it’s no wonder Cannes embraced it and you should, too.