Saturday 3 August 2019

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

A drama about alternative fatherhood, Captain Fantastic enjoys moments of familial grit and humour, but backs away from challenging discourse.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is the middle-aged father of six children, living off the grid in a forest, home schooling the kids while teaching them wilderness survival skills and espousing a left-wing, anti-establishment life philosophy. The gangly and socially awkward eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) is accepted to top colleges but hesitant to broach the topic with his dad.

Ben's wife Leslie is bipolar and commits suicide in the hospital. Another son, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) blames his father for her death and is least convinced by his parents' lifestyle choice. Leslie's parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) do not want Ben at the funeral, but he decides to crash the event anyway, setting out on an epic road trip with the kids on the family bus.

Carrying an echo from 1986's Mosquito Coast, Captain Fantastic explores the value of disassociating with what society has to offer and reverting back to an organic, waste-free, close-to-nature upbringing. Director and writer Matt Ross explores the fragility of fatherhood and creates an intriguing dynamic featuring a mostly close-knit family, a sensitive and ironically modern approach to parenting in rough surroundings, and children arriving at crossroads and forced to start making independent choices.

For the most part, Ross plays fair. This is neither a celebration nor condemnation of Ben's approach to life. In so much as his kids are better educated, physically fit and able to live off the land, they are also social misfits and deprived of interaction with friends. The eldest Bo is tongue-tied in front of girls, and in a funny sequence, disintegrates when an attractive girl flirts with him at an RV park during the road trip.

Along the way to the funeral Ross draws stark contrasts with a more traditional family as Ben makes a stop at the house of his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) and their two kids. The two families may as well be from different planets, as neither the adults nor the children are able to communicate and function as an extended family.

The clash of cultures reaches a zenith with the deceased Leslie's parents, her wealthy father Jack in particular representing everything Ben stands against. The grieving father now wants his revenge by banishing the widowed husband, but Ben's peacefully rebellious psyche means he will not back down easily.

For all the good work created in establishing the premise, Captain Fantastic takes the wrong turn in its final act. Just when Ross appears to have built a sturdy foundation for a soul-searching conclusion, he takes the easy way out, completely jettisons two characters, and goes looking for a pat feel-good finale that avoids all difficult conversations.

Viggo Mortensen holds the film together in an understate performance, conveying the quiet anguish of loss and the creeping self-doubt as seemingly for the first time, Ben starts to witness the potential negative ramifications of his core beliefs. As he walks a fine line between hero and villain to his kids, Captain Fantastic is different in his approach but grappling with conflicts familiar to most dads.

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