Dir. Matt Ross. U.S. 2016

Talking Pictures alias







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In Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic a family has opted for a simple life in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, turning their backs on what they consider to be a corrupt system that supports an inauthentic way of being in the world. The children, Bodevan (George MacKay), Kieyler (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) are united in their disdain for consumer culture and the quest for status. They are well versed in philosophy, history and quantum theory, and can hunt for food and show impressive physical skills. Their politics are decidedly outside of the mainstream.

Instead of celebrating Christmas, they pay homage to progressive author Noam Chomsky on his birthday, while 18-year-old Bo, the oldest son, proclaims he is neither a Trotsky-ist or a Trotsky-ite but a Maoist. The superhero Captain Fantastic in this scenario is father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who assists the family in developing survival skills, leading the children in exercises worthy of marine boot camp. At night, to their credit, they sit around the campfire at night reading classic literature and discuss weighty topics such as capitalism and how they see the world. Apparently they have little use for religion, especially Christians and Christianity, but do have a fondness for Buddhism, a religion in vogue right now.

The clan is shaken to its core when Ben tells the family without sugar coating it that their mother Leslie, a victim of bipolar disease, has committed suicide. Though she has been hospitalized for three months, nothing is said about anyone in the family visiting her in the hospital, not an example of Buddhist compassion. According to Leslie’s will, she requested to be cremated and Ben intends to carry out her wishes in spite of strong opposition from Leslie’s wealthy father (Frank Langella) who organizes a Christian funeral service for his daughter. Ben and the children pile into their rickety school bus and head to New Mexico determined to rescue their mother from the grave and the film suddenly becomes a high energy road trip with a few challenging adventures along the way.

Mortensen is impressive in the role of Ben as are the actors who play his children and, as usual, Langella is convincing in his role as a wealthy man who is seemingly the epitome of unrestrained capitalist excess.  While Ben is a loving father who eventually entertains the strange notion of compromise, he is basically little more than a caricature, an idealized fantasy figure who creates what the director must think a sixties commune must have been like. Ben is raising his children to be independent thinkers but does not create any space for them to question his authority, and the semi-robotic kids mouth their father’s ideas rather than their own thoughts (Lolita notwithstanding).

What is unfortunate is that these ideas do have meaning. In the proper context, “Power to the people” is much more than a mindless slogan. While the children are home schooled and appear to be very well educated, they do not seem to have the skills to engage in the world outside of their enclave. Bodevan, for example, accepted in some of the top colleges and adept enough to kill a deer single-handedly, cannot bring himself to talk to a girl without immediately proposing to her. While the ideals that the film espouses are important, here they are trivialized to the point of seeming shallow and phony and there is no discussion of what the word integrity means.

Killing an animal is a pathway to manhood? Robbing a supermarket is “sticking it to the man?” Tolerance is another casualty. "We don’t laugh at people…" Ben tells the children during the road trip "…except Christians." While there is a legitimate discussion about conventional and unconventional ways to raise children, Captain Fantastic does not promote any serious reflection. Perhaps if this holier than thou family would come out of the wilderness and participate in making a difference in the real world we could be getting someplace.


Howard Schumann

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