Cinematic Releases: Captain Fantastic

Chris Jordan reviews the excellent new indie drama with Viggo Mortensen, in theaters now.

"That title puts me in the mood for some
Elton John covers..."
The summer of 2016 is turning out to be a bit of an unusual one at the movies, with an uncommonly embattled and divisive lineup of blockbusters counterbalanced by a very strong and experimental season of indies, led by The Lobster and Swiss Army Man. Into that fray comes Captain Fantastic, a film with a title that humorously evokes images of superheroes, but is very much the antidote to summer movies with more flash than soul. A thoughtful, eccentric, emotionally complex drama about a dad and his children facing the painful differences between the world they want and the world that really is, writer/director Matt Ross's film is a small masterpiece. It is also built around a brilliant central performance from Viggo Mortensen, demonstrating once again that he may be one of his generation's finest actors. Captain Fantastic easily belongs on the already-illustrious list of 2016's great indies, and is one of this summer's best films, period.

Mortensen plays the patriarch of a hippie family, raising his six kids in an idyllic wilderness settlement where they grow their own food, live among nature, and study philosophy and political theory far away from the capitalist greed and corruption of modern society. But modern society comes crashing back into his utopia when his wife dies, and he and the kids must go visit her less-than-approving family for her funeral. Their journey through the world they have been raised to stand against tests the extremity of their lifestyle, their complex feelings about it, and their hopes and anxieties about the future of their unusual family unit. For the kids, this takes the shape of a coming-of-age story as they explore a society that is alien to them; for Mortensen's middle-aged hippie, it presents an unexpected challenge to the worldview he thought he had figured out years ago. For all of them, the core struggle is the painful dissonance between the perfect world they have built for themselves, and the heavily compromised world that won't be locked out.

"We caught that hat ourselves, somewhere
outside Rivendell."
What makes this film so powerful is that it exists in a very realistically complex space where there is no grand cinematic conflict, or good guys and bad guys; it is all difficult-to-navigate shades of ethical gray. Every character in the film is relatable, understandable, and ultimately likable despite their flaws, but they also all have serious issues they need to deal with. They all clearly want to do the right thing for themselves and their loved ones, but are honestly lost as to what that right thing is. Mortensen's Ben Cash very clearly loves his kids and is trying to give them the perfect life: a life where they are healthy and at one with nature, where they learn to be strong and self-reliant, and where the mind-numbing excesses of American culture are replaced by the writings of Noam Chomsky. But he doesn't see how he has isolated them so heavily from the world that he has made them unable to relate to anyone their own age who isn't one of their siblings. The kids are similarly conflicted between their love for their wilderness society (and their contempt for the fat capitalist sheep that surround them) and their desire to explore the rest of the world and experience the things that all other kids do. Even Ben's father in law (Frank Langella), who at first comes off as antagonistically opposed to Ben's hippie ways, is ultimately just a concerned grandpa who is worried about the well-being of his grandkids. That no one is a villain, and everyone is coming from an understandable point of view, makes the dilemmas that they face all the more poignant, difficult, and real. The characters are in unique positions as people who have decided firmly to set their own rules, rather than living by society's... but setting your own rules can be really hard and lonely.

"Over there is a debate about the merits and
flaws of Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond.
We're going to stay far away from that."
While Viggo Mortensen's beautifully complex performance is the heart and soul of the film, the rest of the cast is equally strong. The six kids are all excellent: totally natural, and emotionally insightful. The familial bond that they share feels quite real, and one can't help but suspect that the comraderie forged between the cinematic family members on set must have been strong. In particular, George MacKay (11.22.63) is fantastic as Ben's oldest son, who at 18 years old is starting to really worry about what his unconventional existence means for his future. Frank Langella brings a deceptively sensitive complexity to the outwardly-abrasive, conservative father-in-law, turning what could have easily been an antagonistic character into another understandable human. Writer/director Matt Ross (an actor most recognizable from Silicon Valley and the first season of American Horror Story) cultivates this complexity with a sure, subtle hand, and a confident artistic vision. The style of the film is equally strong: a Richard Linklater-esque slice-of-life, with beautiful cinematography capturing the wilderness settings and channeling Ben's philosophy of oneness with nature. With Captain Fantastic, Ross absolutely becomes an indie director to look out for.

This summer has given us no shortage of indie films to get excited about, and Captain Fantastic is one of the best yet. It is definitely more accessible (and less weird) than Swiss Army Man and The Lobster, which will hopefully allow it to get a bit more mainstream traction, and it is at least as good as either of those. With its compellingly human themes, confident artistic voice, and great cast lead by Mortensen in top form, this definitely belongs on the must-see list of films in theaters this season. Don't miss it.

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- Christopher S. Jordan