A film review by Craig J. Koban October 30, 2016


2016, R, 118 mins.


Viggo Mortensen as Ben  /  George MacKay as Bodevan  /  Samantha Isler as Kielyr  /  Annalise Basso as Vespyr  /  Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian  /  Shree Crooks as Zaja  /  Charlie Shotwell as Nai  /  Trin Miller as Leslie  /  Steve Zahn as Dave  /  Kathryn Hahn as Harper  /  Ann Dowd as Abigail  /  Frank Langella as Jack

Written and directed by Matt Ross

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is one those delectably quirky and offbeat dramas about an equally quirky and offbeat family unit that definitely takes great pains to make audience members identify with and understand said family unit.  

The film was a critical and audience darling on festival circuits earlier this year (even garnering an unheard of ten minute standing ovation at Cannes).  A little part LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and THE MOSQUITO COAST, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC contains some strongly compelling thematic material about the nature of child rearing, not to mention how families deal with and process grief.  The film is also an embarrassment of performance riches, with a robustly reliable Viggo Mortensen confidently leading the charge.  

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC has all the makings of an endearingly memorable and touching film that makes it hard to hate. 

Unfortunately, I found far too much of this film frustratingly myopic in its approach.  It was also dramatically insufferable at times.    

A little bit of context is required by me before I move forward in explaining myself.  CAPTAIN FANTASTIC features Mortensen as Ben, a bohemian tree hugger if there ever was one.  He has taken his entire family - including six children at various ages - to wholeheartedly abandon all ties to urban life and instead embrace the wilderness in all of its forms.  He has essentially relocated his children in a very remote part of the forests of the Pacific Northwest and has lived off of the land for what appears to be years.  No smart phones.  No computers.  No TV.  Instead, Ben home schools his kids with what could best be described as a Swiss Family Robinson style that involves methodically training not only their young and fertile intellectual minds (they're versed in multiple languages, quantum theory and Dostoevsky), but also their bodies (his daily boot camps includes body conditioning and self defense as well as instructing his offspring on how to kill wild animals with nothing but knives).  All in all, this completely off-the-grid and self reliant family is basically a hyper literate squadron of adolescent and child Rambos. 



Tragedy strikes the family when it's revealed very early on that Ben's wife has committed suicide after years of battling bipolar disorder (which may or may not have manifested itself because of her seclusion in the wilderness apart from her family and civilization as a whole).  In one of the film's more gut wrenchingly potent and frank scenes, Ben explains to his kids very matter-of-factly that their mom is gone and that they have essentially been banned from attending the funeral by her father Jack (Frank Langella).  Predictably, the kids all want to pay their last respects to their fallen mother, and Ben in particular wants to honor her wishes outlined in her will to be cremated and then have her remains dumped in a place that 99.99% of people don't wish to have their ashes lay.  As a man perpetually driven to flip the bird at the status quo, Ben decides to gather his clan in his ransack bus and make the pilgrimage to the funeral to ensure that she receives the proper Buddhist send off she wanted.  Of course, her dear ol' daddy has other ideas. 

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC was directed by Matt Ross, whom you may recognize more for his work as an actor on the small screen on shows like the recent SILICON VALLEY and past efforts like BIG LOVE.  Ross shoots this film impeccably well and the opening introductory establishing shots capture the ruggedly foreboding, yet beautiful terrain that Ben and his family find themselves inhabiting.  As a picturesque travelogue into "bush" life, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is fetching eye candy, to be sure.  As previously mentioned, the film also has some legitimately compelling things to say about the whole nature of the modern education system.  There's a sly scene in the film when Ben and his children make a pit stop stay at his sister Harper's home (Kathryn Hahn) who still really feels that her bother is failing his kids.  To prove his point, Ben asks his teenage nephews to inform him what the Bill of Rights contains, to which they pathetically fail.  Ben then asks his youngest the same question and she unleashes an encyclopedic answer.  Harper's kids know everything about pop culture, but very little else. 

This leads me, though, to one of my largest beefs with CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: This film has as much obsessive minded tunnel vision as its main character.  Ben is aggressively forced fed to audiences as an unwaveringly sympathetic soul that's supposed to capture our rooting interest and steadfast support.  Ben is so self-righteous in his cause that he only sees his way as the right way for his kids, and because Ross seems legitimately reticent at being openly critical of Ben's choices in life it has the negative side effect of making CAPTAIN FANTASTIC come off as a one sided diatribe against everyone that disagrees with him.  In many ways, Ben rarely feels like a real flesh and blood character because he's so rigidly idealized throughout this film.  Ross really shies away from the many nagging and obvious questions that arise about Ben's problematic - and sometimes dangerously unhealthy - education methodology. 

Just consider: Are his children really happy, productive, and mentally healthy individuals that are better off in the wild well segregated from society?  There are no doubts that they're more physically fit than average children (which has a lot to do with being trained like child soldiers by Ben), but what of their emotional well being?  How can any of these children form meaningful ties with anyone outside of their family?  Ben's tutelage ensures that it's an impossibility.  These kids are inordinately intelligent, but how does speaking four languages and pontificating about great literary work prepare them for adulthood in the real world?  That, and how self actualized are they as well?  Ben preaches a great gospel about being true to yourself, speaking your mind, being an independent spirit, and always questioning authority, but he rules over his kids with such an authoritarian fist that it makes their actual freedom kind of a laughable.  Ben's family feels less like an emotionally grounded and mutually supportive group and instead comes off more as a militarized cult at times.  That can't be altogether healthy for anyone.   

Most of the key figures in the film that oppose Ben and his ways are either presented as obtuse minded fools or affluent fat cats that smugly think they know what's better for his children.  Take Frank Langella's character, for instance, who could have easily been developed as an intriguing foil to Ben.  Alas, here he's presented in such one sided terms as a hostile antagonist that's a threat to Ben's way of life, so much so that CAPTAIN FANTASTIC seems to abandon any significant and thoughtful examination of what constitutes child abuse and what doesn't.  And Jack actually has a point about Ben risking his grandchildren's lives in the forest to the point, so much so that he unintentionally becomes a sane and soft spoken voice of reason here.  But, nope, any attempt for fair and balanced family conflict here is absent.   But we're supposed to cheer for Ben and his crew because they're "outsiders" and "misunderstood"...and because the screenplay demands it.  Sigh. 

And don't even get me started on this film's final twenty minutes or so, which involves Ben's family making a truly ghastly and mortifying choice that seems less like the product of reality and more like something that would only occur in the made-up la-la land that is this film.  Many viewers will, no doubt, be driven to cheer their actions, whereas I was left in a state of absurd mouth dropping disbelief (the manner that the film builds off of this to a unbelievably padded and hooky feel good ending for all seems completely unearned to boot).  I just reach a point when I began to seriously question Ben's very sanity, which is not a good position to put a viewer in, especially in a film like this that wants you jubilantly support this weirdo to final victory.   

A film as wrongheaded as CAPTAIN FANTASTIC shouldn't be as thanklessly acted as it is.  The youthful performers here are remarkably solid at conveying themselves as book smart intellectuals that are hopelessly out of touch with the modern day norms of everyday city life.  And Mortensen himself once again demonstrates how good he is at stripping away any semblance of vanity by playing grizzled, grungy, and unattractive characters that feel both invitingly warm hearted, yet cruelly vindictive at the same time.  His multi-faceted and layered performance makes Ben far more intriguing than the lopsided screenplay ever affords him.  CAPTAIN FANTASTIC has thought provoking ideas to probe about the philosophies of child rearing and endangerment, but it rarely has any nerve to seriously tackle them.  If you strip away this film's colorfully eclectic facade all you're really left with is a pretty shallow drama with cookie cutting sermonizing. 

 this film.

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