Boasting ‘fantastic’ in the title can often spark expectations which may be hard for the film to live up to however Director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic is as wonderful as its name. Led by a stunning performance by Viggo Mortensen as an endearing, progressive patriarch, the film is gorgeous, heartfelt, funny, and honest.
In their counter-culture paradise, Ben Cash (Mortensen) is just trying to raise his six kids in the best way possible – with rigorous physical, survival and intellectual education. They live in a yurt and tree houses, hunt for their own food, learn five languages and celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday rather than the conventional Christmas. It’s an idyllic, off-the-grid life, where Ben’s hate of American capitalism informs his kids with a ‘stick it to the man’ dogma and the individual personalities mesh to make beautiful music by the campfire.
When bipolar mum Leslie (Trin Miller) commits suicide, it puts a massive twist in the fairy tale and the emotionally charged drama begins as the grieving father and kids are forced into the conventional reality and stifling society they swear to hate so much.
The films opens to sweeping vistas of Pacific Northwest forest and plunges into a rite-of-passage ceremony Ben has organised for his eldest son, Bodevan (George McKay), and you can’t helped being entranced by the primal beauty of the Cash’s world.
Ben’s direct approach to parenting sees him treat the kids as adults, and respects their intelligence at every turn, which is brutally apparent as he announces to them, ‘your mother is dead. She killed herself.’ So the family sets off on a five-day journey on their bus ‘Steve’ to New Mexico where their mum is being buried against her wishes.
Everything begins to unravel as the family emerge from the serene wilderness into city skylines and chain stores galore. As the children experience the outside world for the first time, it’s clear their rigorous training hasn’t prepared them for this life, a fact they satirise playing the part of Christian homes-schoolers to distract a police officer, and when eldest Bo proposes marriage immediately after his first kiss.
Though the confrontations with reality are treated with quirk and humour, it’s clear Ben is fighting for what he believes is right for him, his kids and the world. Mortensen is masterfully charismatic, even under his mountain-man beard, and sensitively toes the line between principled and unhinged. If Mortensen is the star, the youth performances of his children give him an impressive run, with the standouts of George McKay, who seeks a college adulthood, and the middle-child Nicholas Hamilton, who questions the life his father has chosen for them.
Captain Fantastic is brimming with effectively crafted scenes which depict the texture of the family’s life before and the shock of after integrating with ‘normal’ life. Ross’ imagination is at work here, as themes are shown rather than told, and lingers on the honest sentimentality of the narrative, respecting both the characters’ and audience’s sensations.
Stunningly shot and scored with a story of genuine emotion, Captain Fantastic will sweep you up in its inventive adventure into the fundamental human experience.
Reviewed by Hannah Lally
Rating out of 10: 8
Captain Fantastic opens in cinemas on 8 September 2016.