Celebrate Noam Chomsky Day with the Warmly Funny Captain Fantastic
One look at the pic above or the synopsis below and you’d be forgiven for thinking that writer/director Matt Ross’ new film Captain Fantastic is yet another quirky dramedy about oddballs trying to stay true to themselves in the face of society’s normality. You’d be right too, but while the film ticks off that seemingly generic box it also features elements and strengths well beyond it. It’s frequently funny and often affecting, but more than that it raises questions about family, responsibility, and the resiliency of children.
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) lives in a Pacific Northwest forest with his six kids who range in age from seven to seventeen. His wife, their mother, has spent the past few months in a hospital with an illness while their lives have continued like normal. Of course, normal is relative, and for them it means survival skills, meditation, knife fighting, music lessons, and a thorough education in science, history, and the arts. The youngest can shift a conversation from biology to Pol Pot while the eldest has recently philosophically transitioned from being a Trotskyite to a Maoist. Their self-created utopia is put on hold though when an issue involving their mother necessitates a bus trip into the real world.
There are multiple contrasts at the heart of Captain Fantastic as Ben’s parental style and choices are challenged by those around them. His youngest daughter outshines and outwits a more traditionally-schooled teenager in a head to head battle involving both knowledge and understanding of history, but for all of their smarts and broad education the kids have no idea how to interact with others. Ben’s oldest son, Bodevan (George Mackay, Pride, How I Live Now), has received college acceptance letters from top schools but feels compelled to hide them from his father. Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella) is threatening legal action to take custody of the kids on the grounds of abuse. One of the kids has even begun wondering aloud why they ignore celebrating Christmas in favor of Noam Chomsky Day.
One area almost guaranteed to generate conversation in audiences is Ben’s habit of giving the kids weapons as gifts. To be clear, they’re knives and bows as opposed to guns, but the potentially incendiary conflict remains. This is just one part of Ross’ theme though regarding the difference between what we think children can handle and what they can actually handle. They’re taught responsibility, but are some of them too young to even grasp the concept? When tragedy strikes Ben is upfront with the kids as to the details, but he’s chastised by others for sharing too much. Is there a benefit for the kids in shielding them from unsavory truths?
Ross works these somewhat serious ideas and questions into a film that’s just as much of a boisterous road trip romp as the family sets out to “save mom.” We’re along for the ride through scenes of intense grief, first kisses, teen rebellion, and family bonding, and it’s never less than engaging.
The cast is a big part of the film’s success with Mortensen taking the lead in more ways than just the obvious. His Ben is a firm parental force, but his affection for his kids is never in doubt. His decisions may challenge our own standards at times, but even when we’re in complete disagreement with him Mortensen makes him a man we can’t help but respect and admire. The kids are all equally terrific and form a believable family through a visible fondness for each other.
The film’s balance does slip ever so slightly into lean entertainment on occasion, but it’s never enough to hurt the momentum and more serious elements. Ross also lets his movie end a couple times too many with scenes that feel somewhat extraneous. When it does finally end for real it does so on a high, but it’s with unnecessary detail and imagery.
Captain Fantastic is in some ways a less angry, more commercial take on The Mosquito Coast as a man fights against the norm to do what he believes to be best for his family, but while Peter Weir’s film found little warmth for its patriarch Ross’ heart is far bigger.