Film Reviews 2016

Sundance Review: 'Captain Fantastic'


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Image Wilson Webb.
© Bleecker Street.
"The journey through America is a commentary on all the faults of our excessive, consumerist society."

Captain Fantastic is a provocative, intellectual adventure. Anyone watching it is sure to judge the characters on both sides, but the film presents them both fairly, warts and all.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has been raising his kids off the grid, home schooling and teaching them to hunt and survive in the wilderness. He does go into town to use a phone to check on his hospitalized wife, and when she dies, he takes the kids back into society for her funeral. Not that he's welcome. His father-in-law (Frank Langella) would just as soon have Ben arrested.

The journey through America is a commentary on all the faults of our excessive, consumerist society. Self-sufficient kids are baffled by the things they see. However, they are still taught compassion for the less enlightened or less fortunate.

Meeting up with Ben's sister (Kathryn Hahn) is a recipe for conflict too. Ben demonstrates how much more educated his young children are than her teenagers. There's more to the world than book smarts, though. Social skills are important, and it is a parent's prerogative to shelter their kids from certain information, whether you agree with that parent or not. Provoking the family seems an unnecessary risk. You don't need the attention of social services when you're trying an antisocial experiment. At some points it seems like he's daring society to come and get him.

Ben's frank honesty is refreshing, but you wonder if it's just the opposite extreme. Kids may ask big questions but they can't actually process the answers until a certain age. Then you've given your kids minds of their own, so you can expect them to rebel against you at some point.

There is a conflict inherent in Ben's philosophy. You can be self sufficient but eventually society does intrude. In this case it's a health crisis, but just the fact that he has kids means other extended family are involved. Certainly his confrontation at the funeral can only attract unwanted attention. Getting arrested won't help Ben honor his wife's last wishes either. I mean, the way to honor her will is through legal channels, but that wouldn't be dramatic, and they could just declare her unsound anyway. Some of Ben's beliefs are just as superficial as the modern world he protests. I mean, making up names for the kids so they don't share names like Steve or Joe... You can still be unique if you share a common name.

This is pretty highbrow stuff, well-written and well-performed. Mortensen has both conviction and humility, but also the kids are breakthroughs. As the oldest, we've seen George MacKay before, but what a rare treat to see a grown boy discover the world for the first time, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell all blew me away.
Last edited: 13 May 2016 09:25:12