Depictions of familial love have long been a staple of the film medium. In these films – which depict everything from dysfunctional family dynamics (August Osage County, Rachel Getting Married) to explorations of grief (Ordinary People, Rabbit Hole) – most of the action takes place inside homes with characters that are at least relatable in their ordinariness. There may not be one that represents you specifically, but there is usually a character that is similar to someone you have met. It is because of this norm that Captain Fantastic feels so fresh; it challenges these familiar premises by presenting a cast of characters that have a very different background, who live in a manner that is anything but ordinary.
The film centers on Ben Nash, a man who has dedicated his life to cultivating an environment in which his children can thrive. Living in the sprawling forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben’s children endure a rigorous daily regimen of physical and mental activity. All of them – from the youngest who is barely more than a toddler, to the oldest who is already a young man – are entirely self-sufficient, able to hunt and forage as well as they can quote Kant, discuss historical politics, or speak different languages. At first, their solitary existence is depicted as a paradise, and in a way it is, existing outside time and the ugliness of the world; it is place where strength of character and intelligence reign above all things. However, something is clearly amiss.
When Ben goes into town to sell some wares he and his children have made, he learns that his wife, who was recently admitted into a psychiatric facility, has committed suicide. Furthermore, her businessman father tells Ben that he is not invited to her funeral, which will take place in a week’s time. Though Ben is tempted to honor his father-in-law’s wishes, his children have different ideas. Swayed by their desire to see their mother off in proper fashion, Ben reluctantly takes his children into the world that he and his wife fought to shield them from.
What follows is a culture-clash story that explores what it means to love your family, your spouse, your children, and how that love can sometimes be both empowering and detrimental to their development and well-being as people. Though Ben’s children are incredibly intelligent, they are socially-inept; some of them are incapable of even the simplest of interactions with other people. The social constructs that we navigate daily are alien to them, their values creating a gulf between them and “normal” people in a way that sometimes makes them come off as pretentious and condescending. Yet there is value in the lessons Ben seeks to teach his children. Intelligence is important; knowledge of history, of literature, of philosophy, are vital to developing one’s world view. To accept anti-intellectualism and to not question authority figures is to fail one’s duty as a well-rounded and dynamic human being.
Whether you agree with Ben’s treatment of his children or not, the true strength of Captain Fantastic is that it doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t say that Ben is either right or wrong, rather it shows how his choices, and likewise the choices of his wife and father-in-law affect his children. How each of the children react, with their own personalities and desires, showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Ben’s way of life. Some of the kids wish to be normal so they don’t feel likes outcasts, while others rebel against society, thinking to be “normal” is to be simple. Through all of this, the definition of love is explored in an open-ended, realistic manner that neither judges nor defines. Ben loves his children unconditionally and has very specific desires for them. Though Ben’s father-in-law lives in a mansion off a golf course, in no way is his love for his grandchildren diminished. Neither he or Ben are depicted as caricatures, which is also refreshing given that so many films seek to make an antagonist of a character from the onset by having them act in unrealistic and clichéd ways, rather than taking the time to develop their worldview and let the audience judge for themselves.
The obvious highlight of this film is Viggo Mortensen as Ben. Mortensen, in my opinion, is one of the greatest actors alive today. Though he first wowed me as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, his work in smaller roles has been equally impressive and varied in the years since (see A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, The Road, etc.). He has one of the most expressive faces of any actor, and whether Ben is experiencing grief or joy, Mortensen knows exactly what to do. His effortless, emotive performance is full of nuance and depth; he manages to make Ben hyper-intelligent, but never pretentious. Ben is a man of reason and though he may disapprove of other peoples’ lifestyles, he’s always willing to have discussions and open to changing his mind if presented with a compelling argument.
Likewise, the children in the cast are all impressive in their own ways, with the highlights being Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso as Ben’s two eldest daughters, who wish for nothing more than to attend their mother’s funeral, and George MacKay, who plays Ben’s eldest son who is struggling with how detached from the outside world he is due to his parent’s chosen lifestyle. Though these actors have more material than those that play their siblings, they all turn in great performances, regardless of age. Frank Langella is excellent as Jack, Ben’s father-in-law, ably depicting a man in immense pain seeking someone to blame. Though not in the film for long, the arc of Jack and Ben’s relationship has layers that some features don’t even achieve, and that is largely due to the prowess of the actors onscreen.
Directed and written by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is an experience that is beautiful in every respect. The dialogue is lively and intelligent, yet never seems forced or unrealistic. The cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine (Rust and Bone) is incredible, showcasing the beauty of nature and contrasting it with the manicured lawns of suburbia and the twisting freeways and sharp lines of America’s cities and towns. The score by Alex Somers (Aloha) is lovely in its subtlety; it assists emotional moments rather than overwhelming them and Somers uses already-existing music in compelling ways to make the film feel like a piece of our world, while never robbing it of its unique identity. Also, props for the best use of a Sigur Rós song in a film since 127 Hours.
In short, Captain Fantastic is an impeccable film, one that leaves you full of love and a desire to not only seek intelligence, but also connection with others. It is a nuanced depiction of familial love, alienation, grief and finally, acceptance; an exploration of what it means to be a part of the world and how one can do that while still retaining what makes them special.
In a word, fantastic.