Captain Fantastic is an original, unusual film about the power of compromise. In a year of movies which share the theme of “look inward before judging outward,” Matt Ross’ comedic drama may be the most important of them all, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
I guess it makes sense to have such a strong thematic element during an election year – that time where we Americans love to point fingers, argue, and establish moral superiority without a strong base – and it’s commendable the way that Captain Fantastic dances between left and right ideology. Unlike so much media we consume, it can actually be deemed fair and balanced.
Viggo Mortenson Stars as Ben, a survivalist father of 6 who has been living off the grid for an indeterminate amount of time. By day he and his children hunt, forage, and exercise. By night they discuss literary greats around the fire. Their bond is remarkable. The children, ranging from about 5-18, are respectful, happy, and radiant. Meanwhile, Mom is staying at a mental institution where she is receiving treatment for depression. When word arrives that she has taken her own life, Ben and his clan decide to take a road trip in an effort to hijack her Christian funeral and give her the Buddhist burial she surely wanted.
When the forest backdrop gives way to the fast food deserts of suburban America, the super left-wing ideals Ben and his family share are questioned (let’s just say that they’re the only family that emphatically celebrates ‘Noam Chomsky Day’). This clash calls into question whether or not Ben is truly the man he believes himself to be, or if he’s just a holier-than-thou neo-hippie who gets off on giving the finger to the system. When the independent education his children have received is put to the test, they exhibit a level of knowledge and consideration that puts their suburban, Xbox-and-junk-food cousins to shame, but when his eldest is tasked with speaking to a young girl his age, his complete lack of social skills is heart-breaking and tragic. Young Bo misses the most basic of Star Trek references, and it’s painful to watch. Captain Fantastic asks whether or not cursory pop-culture knowledge is even necessary, and subsequently answers both yes and no.
It’s this duality that gives the film its power. We watch as two opposite forces – establishment and antiestablishment – collide, and are forced to compromise for the greater good. It reminds us of just how powerful a compromise can be. When differing ideologies respect each other’s right to a perspective, great things can happen.
Don’t let me make it all sound so heavy. The experience of watching Captain Fantastic is a delight. The humor comes forth in warm waves from a perfect cast. For a film with such a wealth of characters, none are sidelined. The children are all exceptional, each displaying their survivalist wisdom in a way that could not be simple parroting. There’s craft here, and it’s remarkable to watch. I’m reminded of the early days of Dakotah Fanning with her preternatural ability to “get it” even though she’s barely of reading age. Frank Langella, as Ben’s well-off father in-law (and poster child for the privileged amongst the establishment), fluctuates from warm to cold much in the same way that Ben does, bringing to life the notion that these two aren’t so different in their morals, just their methods.
The real star, of course, is the ever-mysterious Viggo Mortensen. One gets the feeling that Ben and Viggo are but one man. If someone told me that Viggo Mortensen only ate what he hunted and spent his nights in a teepee I’d have no trouble believing it. As Ben, he expels a warmth toward his family that makes the screen glow. He loves his family. He respects them. And Mortensen makes it all so genuine.
Unfortunately, the final few scenes dip into twee, Little Miss Sunshine territory. It’s not subtle. I’d even go so far as to say that the film falls flat on its face. It’s hard to describe why without getting into spoilers, but it’s worth noting that I almost popped a contact from rolling my eyes so hard. Luckily, the preceding film is such a smart, funny joy that even the weak landing couldn’t derail it. Captain Fantastic just spent two hours teaching me about compromise. I’d be an idiot not to apply the lesson immediately.
Captain Fantastic opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.