Captain Fantastic is a free-spirited, sun-kissed slice of warmth
Captain Fantastic opens with a glorious sweeping aerial shot of lush treetops, beneath the greenery muddy faced children hide, the object of their gaze, a young deer, is blissfully unaware of the brutal coming of age ritual he is about to be a part of. These youngsters are far from the feral savages it may appear. Their anti-establishment father’s unorthodox methods of childrearing have nurtured a brood of exceptional children, fully versed in topics from Marxist theory to quantum physics. In addition to being intellectually remarkable, this family are skilled survivalists and athletes, their bodies as well as their minds primed beyond their young years. To reinforce each child’s sense of individuality they are all given unique ‘made-up’ names: Bodevan, Zaja, Rellian, Kielyr, Vespyr and Nai to ensure there is only one of them in the world.
Days are spent hunting and mastering combat training; evenings are spent with literature, quizzes and making communal music by fire light. However, director Matt Ross subtly avoids presenting the family lifestyle as complete paradise; sons Bodevan (George McKay) and Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) are already questioning their father’s principled doctrine. Bodevan, unbeknownst to his father has successfully applied to several Ivy League Colleges and is concerned that for all of his academic prowess he has no practical knowledge of the world outside of the self-reliant bubble in which they live. His brother Rellian, at that awkward tween age, is showing signs of yet unspoken frustration and resentment towards his father.
In keeping with narrative convention, the clan’s isolated existence, living off the grid far from capitalist civilisation, is disrupted when tragedy strikes and the decision is made to travel en masse to New Mexico in ‘Steve’, the decrepit family bus. This expedition serves to highlight how, despite their advanced aptitude in an eclectic array of subjects, their isolated existence may not be giving the children the skills necessary to function in the society that Ben has rejected, but that they will inevitably have to interact with as they mature. Along the journey the younger children are alarmed to see overweight people (are they all ill?) and on a visit with Ben’s Sister and Brother-in-Law (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn) they are horrified by the violent images in computer games being played by their spoilt and intellectually inferior cousins.
Ben is eventually forced to re-evaluate the life he has chosen for his children on encountering their bourgeois maternal Grandparents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd). There’s tension and confrontation aplenty, not to mention a few moments that tug on the heartstrings, but all parties give such nuanced performances and Ross skilfully avoids picking sides in the thorny child rearing debate, there are no villains, it is clear that everyone only has the best interests of the children at heart and both arguments are fairly represented.
Mortensen give a masterful performance, his weather beaten, chiselled features perfectly fitting for a man who has rejected society to live in the forest and he has the acting sinew to effortlessly convey both Ben’s pragmatic occasionally egotistical side and the more sensitive characteristics of a loving father. It’s a role he seems a natural to portray and he’s ably supported here by an ensemble cast of talented youngsters who all get their chance to shine, particularly McKay: Bodevan’s first kiss and the subversion of the lustful teenage boy stereotype is an hilarious, stand out moment.
Ultimately this is an affecting film, gently examining rebellion and nonconformity and brimming with humanity and humour. With no cynicism whatsoever, Ross questions society’s traditional values without over moralising or upsetting the status quo too much. Captain Fantastic is a free-spirited, sun-kissed slice of warmth and I was genuinely sorry to say goodbye to this unique family as the credits rolled.
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