The clue is in the name
Directed and written by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic stars Viggo Mortensen, who plays Ben, father to six children, and a man who has just lost his wife. Ben and his children live in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, practising libertarian socialism/ humanitarianism ideologies while adhering to a lifestyle of self sufficiency, intense physical exercise and an extensive education program. Ben is not only father to his children but he is their teacher and their trainer, constantly challenging his children to become better people throughout the film.
The film begins by giving us a glimpse into the life of Ben and his family, just before the death of his wife, Leslie. Indeed, he does come across as Captain Fantastic. He’s Superdad. He’s raised his children to be at peak physical fitness, super intelligent and self-sufficient. He encourages them to question everything and to push themselves but as the story goes on we begin to realise that he might not be all that fantastic. While his children idolise him, they are totally shielded from reality and have suffered as a result. They have no ‘real-life’ experience and it’s not too long before the children begin to resent him for this.
Leslie’s family, most notably her father Jack (Frank Langella), blame Ben and his lifestyle for her illness and death. The story really gets going when Ben and his children board ‘Steve’, their bus, and head to the funeral. What ensues is a road trip story about family and dealing with grief and self-doubt.
The cast is excellent, Viggo Mortensen is obviously the stand out delivering a thought-provoking and charming performance but George MacKay is equally excellent as Ben’s eldest child, Bodevan. He idolises his father but begins to question his methods part-way through the film which creates a really interesting conflict between the two. The rest of the child cast are all excellent and charming in their own ways.
The children are the source of most of the comedic moments and their interactions with the general population in diners and supermarkets are nothing short of hilarious. There’s hilarity found in the most mundane of everyday situations and that’s thanks to the fantastic script and brilliant performances. Ben’s children mock the facist, capitalist America and are horrified to see how fat, greedy and stupid ‘mainstream’ society is. It’s hilarious to see their reactions to things we consider to be normal, for better or worse.
It’s a beautifully told story of one man’s belief in his ideology and his willingness or stubbornness, which ever way you look at it, to stand up for his beliefs. The real conflict is inside Ben, he’s riddled by guilt at his wife’s death and as the film progresses, he begins to question his parenting methods and Mortensen plays that conflict brilliantly. He tries to shelter his children from society to protect them and in doing so may have made them more vulnerable.
It’s a film which is both heartwarming and hilarious and yet makes you question the society that we live in. It’s not often a film is so feel-good and at the same time manages to ask us genuine questions about the way we live our lives. Maybe if more people acted upon their ideologies like Ben does the world would be a better place.
FANTASTIC. Beautifully shot, brilliantly written with fantastic performances, Captain Fantastic is a heartwarming story of a father’s grief and his doubts and it just might be our film of the year.