"No ideology is perfect, but it is in the clash and contrast of our belief systems and our respective perceived utopias that we learn something about ourselves"
The moniker 'Captain Fantastic' had me worried I'm honest. Even if it was meant to be blatantly ironic it was ripe for a slew of sarcastic references if the film panned. Critics would not ignore such a dangling carrot. After watching the film I feel there is actually an invisible question mark at the end of that title. This isn't because the film isn't fantastic, but because the film raises many questions about what can or indeed should be considered fantastic about family life.
In addition to the chuckles and sniffling going on in the theatre (yes, you probably will cry) I heard a whole manner of interesting comments. Someone said how they wished they didn't live in a city. Another said how they wanted to make amends with their estranged parents and frankly I've seen motivational speakers achieve less in more time. This said others were fierce in their condemnation, saying it romanticised off the grid living. Such a dichotomy I think is partly what emerging writer/director Matt Ross wanted to achieve. I think he wanted us to see the trees for the breathtaking woods. So as Ben Cash would say: let's have a discourse.
Captain Fantastic opens with enough greenery to make your heart hanker. This sweeping vista is swiftly replaced by a bloody scene that leaves you in no doubt where dinner comes from. Dad, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) runs a tight ship. Depending on your perspective he's either going to be a controlling bootcamp leader or someone who believes secure children have strong boundaries. The kids forage, cook, clean, prepare meat, fight, train and study all under Ben's watchful eye. They also meditate and jam around the campfire, which arguably is needed after a day spent hanging off rock faces and studying quantum entanglement.
The kids' mum, Leslie (Trin Miller) suffers from bipolar disorder and has been in hospital for some time. Early on in the film she commits suicide which sends the family into disarray. Leslie's grieving parents clearly disliked Ben before this happened and dislike him all the more now. They ban him from the funeral and Ben acquiesces. The children however insist they must go so everyone piles onto Steve (their converted school bus) and they travel across country to crash their mum's funeral.
Many of the moments that follow are touching, blunt, candid, honest and hilarious. It's particularly delightful to observe Zaja being given her first sex talk. Everything is new and strange to the kids. They have never even seen a fat person let alone a Nintendo. But as much as Ben is training the children to be critical thinkers and to challenge perceived absurdities it's clear they haven't experienced enough of life away from books or their father to have opinions of their own. Bodevan (George MacKay), the oldest, knows this more acutely than the others. He actually wants to go to college to fix the deficit in his social skills.
As the culture clash deepens and accidents ensue Ben has a crisis of self belief. He felt he was doing the right thing to help his family by going off the grid, but now wonders if he's doing more harm than good. Viggo Mortensen acts his socks off at this point. He offers the sort of emotive performance in a single close up that many actors would be happy to have anywhere on their CV. The children are equally amazing and as we head towards the hazy, bucolic ending you can easily forgive it for its over-simplification and unanswered questions that would have stretched this film by at least another hour. So fantastic and forgiveable was it that the guy next to me said 'I could easily watched another hour of that'. And to be honest I personally went back a week later for another viewing. I can't remember the last time I did that for a film.
Captain Fantastic raises the question of what is appropriate for a child. Is it abusive to promote extreme self-reliance, confidence, physicality and creativity within a child? Or is it abusive to encourage a child to interact with screens to the point that their conversations are reduced to emojis and attention spans to a swipe. Equally when did play become slobbing out in a vegetative, vapid state with just thumbs being tapped on a games controller? I don't think Captain Fantastic is romanticising rural life. Anyone who's been camping in winter knows it's not a picnic. But it is suggesting more can be found through less. More emotions, more connection through less stuff. There are no clear villains in this. Anyone is capable of being an angel or an a'hole depending on the emotion driving them in that moment. Fallibility is shown to be rooted in the best of intentions and persistent actions rooted in fear are shown to create dogma.
Ultimately this film is about the dangers of extremism and mental and physical isolation. Strident conformity and intolerance exists on both sides in this film. No ideology is perfect, but it is in the clash and contrast of our belief systems and our respective perceived utopias that we learn something about ourselves. Whilst any meditator worth their salt will say that peace is found within, growth is found without.