Title: Captain Fantastic
Language: English, Esperanto
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Matt Ross
Music: Alex Somers
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Teddy Van Ee
Actor-turned-writer-director Matt Ross’s second feature, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is an indie dramedy that has garnered raving reviews since its debut in Sundance and won BEST DIRECTOR honor in Cannes’ UN CERTAIN REGARD section.
The story surrounds a middle-aged man Ben (Mortensen), who lives in the forests of the Pacific Northwest with his wife Leslie (Miller) and their children, a household of 8, the couple firmly adopts their home-school parenting precept to raise the six young children, inculcating them with rarefied philosophy and instructing them survival skills in the wild, in a completely off-the-grid style. But in the stunning opening sequences where audience witnesses their eldest son Bodevan’s (MacKay), rite-of-passage slaughtering of a deer which officiates his entrance into adulthood, yes, each kid is coined with a sui generis name to symbolize their uniqueness, there is no sight of Leslie, it transpires that she has been hospitalized for bipolar disorder, and would soon opt to end her life-of-suffering, thus leave Ben and their children bereft.
In Ben’s extreme ideology, parents should never tell lies to their children, so he has no qualm to announce the bad news to the kids, and in fact, a running trope is whenever the youngest kiddie Nai (Shotwell) bluntly asks a question about certain children-improper terms, which unerringly begets an often too-honest reply and explanation from Ben, yet, that kind of extreme can only be compartmentalized as a minor disagreement with the more orthodox modern-day parenting guidelines. When Ben takes his entire family embarking on a road-trip to attend Leslie’s funeral, that’s when the huge rift starts to come into conflict with the outside world and disintegrate the family from within, especially between Ben and Rellian (Hamilton), the rebellious son who overheard an unpleasant conversion between Ben and Leslie and willfully attributes the latter’s death to the former.
That’s the nexus which strongly coalesces audience with Ben’s ideology, is he really (partially) responsible for Leslie’s suicide? Because despite that his children-rearing principle is far too radical to be impeccable, he is a loving father foremost, who obviously tries his best to protect his offspring from the capitalistic and pseudo-religious toxicity besetting our communal society in his own way, that is an enterprise requires huge responsibility and commitment. It seems Ross himself is also waffling to leave a concrete conclusion to the said question, at one point we are informed that Leslie might want to go back to society, but a letter received by her mother (Dowd) might suggest otherwise, so there is this telling ambiguity of “their choice flowing amidst the diametrical dissension between Ben and Leslie’s father Jack (Langella, a stern and inscrutable force of composure and toughness), which is heightened to allow viewers to switch sides throughout the process.
Rendered with tenderness, mutual understanding and an inextricable blood bond, the story unwinds and accords with one’s expectation, interpolated with an awkward meet-cute, an accident (a mission goes awry), a well-intended twist (a well-earned reunion), and a morbid but enlightening escapade, which consummates in a fulfilling ode to death, life, family, growing up and finding a right way to face the reality, with the accompaniment of a dulcet SWEET CHILD O’MINE sung by Kielyr (Isler). It is always gratifying to watch a film sending the golden message of accepting each other’s differences and taking a middle road in lieu of being too egoistic and mired in one’s stubbornness, no one is perfect, we live and learn, the learning curve from Ben and his children can be universally transcribed to every individual’s own life, we all have our blind spot, to embrace the unfamiliar territory and be inspired, it is a wholesome and horizon-broaden shortcut to one’s ephemeral life span.
Viggo Mortensen is such a gas in this fittingly enlightening character, affectively soul-stirring when he has to accept defeat for the sake of the children’s wellbeing, and utterly congenital and sympathetic in other occasions, which means a lot, since Ben is a role predisposed to be saddled with megalomania and braggadocio as his dark side because of the extreme nature of his belief, but Mortensen never for one second let go of Ben’s human side, squarely his performance transcends the subject itself in the end. And the film has an ace young cast too, under the tutelage of Ross (maybe by reason of this actor background), there is no overt affectation or line-reading play-acting usually can simply blemish the works of those less experienced youngsters, both MacKay and Annalise Basso (as the dauntless Vespyr) show great range with their rather unusual miens.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is exactly those savvy and unpretentious indies you cannot help but mulling over it again and again afterwards and getting inspirations in afterthought, that is why it is worth movie critic’s endless vaunting, because they can be so easily swamped by the surfeit of the available offerings churned out on a daily base. So apart from critics themselves, why on earth would anyone be willing to waste their time in watching a bad movie? Life is too fleeting for this kind of indulgence, Ben certainly would not compromise on that ground!