Released: September 2016
Director: Matt Ross
Given it’s knowingly childish title, wacky costumes and it’s indie-folk trailer music, there was every chance that Captain Fantastic would be an insufferable feel-good morality tale, a Garden State for the family-man. However, it proves to be a complex and at times deeply affecting portrait of grief, familial love and resentment and the difficulties and decisions of trying to live a non-conformist lifestyle.
Viggo Mortensen has already shown he is capable of acting the devoted, protective but unconventional father, through his portrayal in The Road. While no film can really come close to The Road in bleakness, Captain Fantastic again gives Mortensen the chance to show his ability at being a conflicted man as Ben, desperate to do the best thing for his children but utterly terrified of making the wrong decision.
When the film starts, it’s all been easy. Ish. He and his wife have been living in the mountains of Washington state, bringing up their six kids to be fit, fearless and uncompromisingly intellectual. They speak several languages, analyse great works of literature and celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. They can hunt, cook and make shelter. It’s hard to argue they are deprived or neglected, as is often the first assault on non-conventional living, even if the youngest boy does often refuse to wear clothes and another has a penchant for stealing knives. But something has happened- Ben’s wife has been in hospital for months, somewhere in town, a place that seems unfeasibly far away from their life on the mountainside, and the eldest children are starting to turn their finely honed critical eye on their own father and way of life.
As the film progresses you start to see the more worrying side of Ben’s determination to make his children self-reliant. His middle boy breaks his arm rock climbing, but Ben doesn’t help him there and then. “There’s no cavalry. No one will magically appear and save you in the end.” His advice is blunt and harsh, and the son manages to get to the cliff top, but by this point he is boiling with resentment. Ben may not be wrong that sometimes you will be alone, but by pushing his children like this all the time, is he really creating a cult instead of just living an ethos? One of the most knowing sections of the film is an analysis of the book Lolita by one of the daughters. Her depiction of how you are made to empathise with the protagonist, because it’s written from his point of view, is a trick. You understand him and feel sorry for him, even though he’s a monster. You find his love beautiful, even though it’s abuse. It’s a smart scene, and if until that point you had been swept along with the joyous unconventionality of it all, it makes you pause and reconsider all you have seen.
Bo, the eldest son, is superbly acted by George MacKay. He is realising that however clever he may be, whatever skills he may have, he has no clue how the outside world works or how to relate to people within it, and he is furious at his father for this oversight. A humiliating episode with a girl in a caravan park is so well written and executed it’s almost too much to bear, watching his hot flush of embarrassment and confusion.
Captain Fantastic succeeds because it doesn’t go for the easy answers. Some things that Ben does are fine, if undoubtedly weird. We will all draw the line somewhere different as to which things are acceptable alternatives to the norm and which things stamp all over the line. But there will be things that are too far, too reckless and too dangerous for most people. Even if you don’t find him the monster some people will at times, it’s hard to dispute the arguments put to him by his own children about mistakes he’s made in their upbringing.
It also doesn’t fall into any easy political camp, particularly to the British. Ben falls into neither left-wing nor right-wing, but a strange mixture of the two. An anti-authoritarian strident enough to make anarchists take a breath, he’s also anti-civilization to the extent of rejecting the kind of community societies most left-wingers long for. His kids have hippy names and get to wear whatever they like, but his ferocious timetable for their schooling is strict and unforgiving. They live in nature, but in a real sense, which means being happy to kill, skin and eat it too- in a world where left-wing now often means vegetarian or animal rights, this can seem jarring. It is this dualism that permeates the film, and sets it apart from other alternative-lifestyle indie films (I’m looking at you, Little Miss Sunshine). You are being asked to decide whether Ben is an anti-authoritarian hero or a crazed demagogue leading a cult, and the answer can only be he is both. However, the practical, real world we live in would need to make a definitive decision on a family such as this, and the films subtle shades refuse to let any black and white answer seem anywhere close to fair.