Don’t let the name fool you. Captain Fantastic holds no allegiances to the DCEU or the MCU. He’s an original creation by debutant writer/director Matt Ross, that exists deep in the American Pacific Northwest, raising his children to be rebellious, athletic, soldierly philosophers.
Sounds like the perfect kind of hipster-Sundance film right?
Captain Fantastic is the exact kind of crowd-pleasing, aggressively quirky feature film that is custom made for the festival circuit. Its whimsical U-turning of narrative will not be for everyone. But if you’re open to an eccentric reworking of the Little Miss Sunshine formula, with flashes of Wes Anderson-esque direction and framing, then this is a wonderful deviation from the wretched 2016 blockbuster season.
While some may dismiss the oddball premise and jarring Lord of the Flies-inspired opening, this is a thoughtfully constructed human drama that effectively argues the many conflicting arguments towards responsible parenting.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, have taken their family off the grid in the most extreme of ways. He spends his days and nights training his children in intensive studies of science, history, literature, philosophy, mathematics and art. When their schooling is complete, it’s a mixture of chores, yoga, free running and weapons training.
Everything is routine and orderly, until Ben learns that his wife (not a spoiler) has taken her life and he’s forced to re-enter himself and his bereaved children back into normal society.
The power of this film comes in combination from Mortensen’s commanding and endearing performance and Ross’ considerate script that refuses to paint the character of Ben with broad strokes. He is a noble idealist, and a doting father, but as he attempts to temporarily assimilate back into civilisation, his unorthodox parenting techniques are exposed.
He doubts himself. He may not be the paragon of fatherhood he envisioned himself as. He may in fact, be abusing his children.
I cannot overstate how colossally brilliant Mortensen is in this role. He is the foundation and the emotional core of the story, and what he delivers is deservedly award-winning.
While not always so subtle in its message (homeschooling vs. institutional education), the road-trip dramedy is always entertaining and often heartwarming. There is also plenty of humour to be found when his whizkid children are forced to confront and clash with the outside world’s dependency on fast food and technology.
The film (as echoed by Ben himself) encourages intellectual debate, while discouraging anyone who may use the word ‘interesting’ as a valid piece of commentary. While the sentimental ending feels slightly unearned, Captain Fantastic stands as testimony to the difficulty and complexity of raising children and dealing with sudden loss and grief.
By the end, the film provides enough delight, charm and warmth to win over audiences even if it’s a little too outré and Bohemian for its own good. It also fires an arrow in the direction of anyone who has ever felt qualified to question someone else’s parenting choices.