Sunday, 31 July 2016

Captain Fantastic

Walter and I had an unexpected opportunity to watch a film together two days ago and we made good use of it, finding a film we both enjoyed very much.

Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a man raising his six children (ranging in age from approximately six to seventeen) in the woods of Washington (up until three months before the film starts, Ben’s wife, Leslie, a former lawyer, helped Ben raise the kids, but she was hospitalized with bipolar disorder). Ben and Leslie have taught their children to hunt, to climb and to survive alone in the woods with only a knife. At the same time, the kids were taught to speak a variety of languages, understand university-level physics, politics, history, math and anatomy, and to read and analyze the best works of literature. The children can also play various musical instruments and sing. This awesome achievement is more than a little farfetched, but it’s a fascinating and original premise and we get sucked into it because we see the world through the eyes of this unorthodox family, providing a commentary on various aspects of life in 21st-century USA. 

It helps that we cringe when we see the lengths Ben takes to prepare his children for life in the wilderness, and it also helps that when circumstances force the family to leave their isolated paradise and head for the ‘real’ world, we see that their superb education has neglected socialization, leaving them ill-prepared to interact with people. There are dangers to idealism and the desire to challenge the system. Even Ben has been living his dream so long that he struggles to behave in acceptable ways in the society he left.

There are many things that make Captain Fantastic a special film, most notably Mortensen’s outstanding performance (and the brilliant writing that produced the unique character he plays). Indeed, the creation and development of all of the film’s characters is extraordinary. Few films, even quirky indie films like this one, manage to find a perfect balance of strengths and weaknesses for each of the characters, making them believable in the midst of their eccentricity, but Captain Fantastic succeeds in doing just that. For example, Ben can be arrogant, defiant and somewhat irrational, but also loving and open to change and seeing sense when his inner struggle permits it. Then there’s Leslie’s father, Jack, played perfectly by Frank Langella. Jack is furious with the way his grandchildren are being raised but that furor remains sympathetic and believable rather than going overboard as many comedy dramas would have done. Each of the children is also beautifully created, with Bodevan (the oldest, played very well by George MacKay) getting the most airtime.

The  writing is strong throughout the film, with an intelligent screenplay that doesn’t talk down to the audience. Meanwhile, the cinematography is gorgeous but restrained and the music is just right.

Which is not to say that Captain Fantastic is flawless. In particular, the lack of credibility which creeps in throughout gets carried away near the end of the film. But given that this is Ross’s first major attempt at filmmaking (he is known as a character actor), his achievement is quite remarkable. This sad, funny and thoughtful film about life in 2016 is one of the best films of the year so far and comes very close to earning ****. Two mugs up!

1 comment:

  1. A great night out. Well said and I have little to add. Christians, be warned that there is some mockery involved (these are not Christian homeschoolers!), but that just seems like appropriate penance for all the very public Christian sins these days. **** from me as well. Two mugs up high and a guarantee for this year's top ten.