Director Matt Ross is perhaps best known to fans of film and television for his roles in front of the camera, most prominently in his award-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck performance, and as a comedic spin on a Google founder in HBO’s Silicon Valley. As a filmmaker, his last film 28 Hotel Rooms was met with mixed reception. However, with CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, Ross returns to demonstrate his ability to craft a finely honed character study that also manages to hit you right in the feels.
In the woods of the Pacific Northwest of the US, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raises his six children in a self-sustainable environment, homeschooling them to be philosopher kings and queens of a wished-for new world. There they train body and mind to be both physically capable of rugged survival, and intellectually fierce. They await the return of their mother, hospitalised for a bipolar condition, until they learn that she has killed herself. Ostracised by his father-in-law (Frank Langella), Ben takes the clan out on a road trip, slowly learning that his existence may not have been as perfect as he imagined.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is a thoughtful film, contrasting the rigidly structured nature of our modern existence with an alternative approach to life. In the spirit of Ben’s teachings, it never preaches one path over the other, laying out the benefits and absurdities of both. On one hand, Ben’s family is properly weird, celebrating Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas, receiving hunting knives for presents, and playing “liberate the food” from supermarkets when they are low on cash. On the other side of the coin, we get to witness America as outsiders as well, with Ross’ script cleverly juxtaposing the inadequate “proper” education and video game culture of his extended family (led by the always wonderful Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn). Our perceptions and allegiances shift, just as they do with the children, always allowing us the freedom of thought to explore the argument holistically.
Viggo Mortensen is captivating as the singularly spirited individual holding this unique family together. His resolve is contagious, a gentle wild man who unapologetically raises his family in his own way, but single-mindedly rejecting philosophies he doesn’t agree with. His award-worthy performance is literally transformative as the feature progresses, as we both sympathise with and criticise his decisions. George MacKay, working in the industry since he was a child, is a standout as Ben’s son Bodevan, a mixture of earnestness and awkward charm.
The Western Washington locations are beautifully shot by multiple César Award winning cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine. A lyrical set of sequences that are content to observe the family sitting around a campfire solemnly reading can just as suddenly turn into a raucous music jam.
With a joyful conclusion that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Polyphonic Spree music video, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC ultimately finds the middle ground between the two ways of living it showcases. In some ways, it’s a bit of a cop out as nobody has to live with the consequences of their actions. Even so, its the sheer enthusiasm that makes this one of the most positive films of the year, and that’s something all of us could use a little more of in our lives.