On paper, you could argue that the basic components of Captain Fantastic don’t sound like a recipe for cinematic brilliance: Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, a hippy-ish father of six kids, who he has named things like Bodevan, Kielyr and Rellian. He raises them in the woods, home-schooling them using a vast selection of books and training them in the ways of survival using mother nature’s canvas as a classroom.
I was worried going in it’d this this would be a garish and unrealistic film about a super-quirky family with nothing engaging or relatable about them. But, I’m pleased to report that this is one of the finest films I’ve seen a long time. Captain Fantastic has heart, drama, and humour in abundance. Writer-director Matt Ross, with only his second feature, has hit on something truly excellent here.
Mortensen gives a hugely charismatic performance, making it hard not to get drawn into the tractor beam of his free-spirited father character and wish he could raise you in the woods as well. And when the real meat of the piece – a custody battle involving the children’s maternal grandfather – starts cooking, you’ll find yourself rooting for the woodsman/hermit character over the representatives of the ‘normal’ society that you’ve (probably) lived in your whole life.
The film wouldn’t work if the junior actors weren’t up to snuff, but thankfully Captain Fantastic serves up one of the best young ensembles committed to celluloid in recent times. At the older end of the spectrum, Pride and Sunshine On Leith alum George MacKay offers big laughs as a young man who first discovers the opposite sex on the central road-trip of the film. Meanwhile, the youngest and most naïve member of the clan is played with wit and charm by American Horror Story’s Shree Crooks. And that’s just to name two of the six impressive youngsters in the film.
Over the course of the movie, it becomes apparent that not everyone in Ben’s woodland community is fully invested in the experience. It’s heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure watching Frank Langella’s grandfather character attemp to tear the family apart. Some of the kids want to stick with how things are, while others find the allure of ordinary food, videogames and normality too powerful to resist.
Captain Fantastic is a film that says a lot about family values, and the toss up between what kids want and what they actually need. What’s more important in this day and age: raising kids who can recite The Bill Of Rights and survive against the elements, or bringing up a family within the structures that society presents? Sure, the former option may make for smart and savvy super-children, but the latter would allow them to integrate far better with the mainstream world and other people their own age.
This is a hugely touching exploration of what makes a family tick. Multi-layered characters are brought to life through great performances and dialogue at every opportunity, resulting in a nuanced explanation of the film’s themes that will leave you with something to chew on when the credits roll.
Matt Ross really establishes himself as a major new talent. His script explores a huge topic while also finding room for humour and warmth, while his direction comes with some neat visual flourishes too. A recurring dream that Ben has makes really good use of lighting, for example.
A smashing film this, stuffed with great performances, funny lines and stellar directorial touches as well as having something serious to say. Viggo Mortensen gives one of the best turns of his career here, and the young actors on show alongside him are strong too. Basically: yes.