Captain Fantastic is well-acted and entertaining, but its success rests largely on viewer response to the polarising lead character. Blinkered leftist alternative types will love him and the film; others may be less enthused.
What to make of Captain Fantastic?
Neo-hippy drivel shamelessly targeting a leftist “alternative” demographic? A thought-provoking rumination on extreme helicopter parenting? A disturbing depiction of a tyrannical narcissist bringing up his children in his own image? A portrait of a subversive and courageous idealist seeking to keep his children free from the shackles and oppressive influences of a bullshit society he doesn’t believe in? A heart-warming tale of an odd-ball family that sticks together through thick and thin?
How about all of the above? Yeah, to say I’m ambivalent about this film is an understatement.
The lead character, 21st century hippy Ben (Viggo Mortensen), is problematic, and the main reason for my mixed response. Not to suggest that Mortensen has anything to answer for. He’s as charismatic as always. Indeed, many viewers are going to be seduced by his too-kool-for-skool Ben character and the leftist idealism that drives him.
Ben and his wife Leslie have taken the tree-change concept and off-grid living to extremes, bringing their kids up in the wilderness of Washington State, home-schooled and completely isolated from the greater community. We never meet Leslie (except in Ben’s dreams). She’s been hospitalised with mental problems – perhaps hubby and his utopia have gotten a bit much for her.
Ben is a self-styled shaman leading and guiding his little tribe of white Injuns in all aspects of life in their wilderness bubble. The children, ranging in age from around 5 to early adulthood, have finely honed bush survival skills, and are supremely physically fit. They stalk and hunt wild animals armed only with knives, grow vegetables, and by night sit around the fire reading fine literature, discussing philosophy and playing guitars. They know the American Constitution by heart. They celebrate Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas (rolling your eyes yet?).
It’s all a bit alternative-by-numbers. At one point, with all the facile spite of a leftist meme, Ben refers to Jesus as a “fictitious magical elf” (yawn). Then, like a ventriloquist dummy, one of the young kids spouts off Daddy’s instructions that “we don’t make fun of any religions, except Christianity.” Not quite consistent with Ben’s advocacy of free-thinking, philosophy and fine literature, you’d think. Religion aside, the Bible is fundamental to Western literature and art. But hey, who cares about trifles like character credibility when there’s the box office to consider, and that large-target leftist viewer demographic to pander to, bless their predictable little hearts all beatin’ as one.
When news arrives of Leslie’s suicide, Ben gathers up his troupe and they hit the road in their neglected family bus (named “Steve”) to rescue her corpse from a church funeral her parents have arranged in New Mexico. Leslie was a Buddhist (naturally), and Ben is adamant that her corpse should be disposed of in a manner in keeping with her beliefs – that is, burnt on a pyre with her children singing her off (from what variation of Buddhism does that tradition derive?). Her parents have forbidden him to attend the funeral, to which he responds with an emphatic “Fuck that!” His brood cheers like the programmed automatons they are.
However, with every real world interaction Ben’s god-like status is undermined. Oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) realises that his isolated upbringing has ill-prepared him for the outside world when he makes a fool of himself in his first flirting encounter. Younger son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), alone among his siblings in resisting Ben’s brainwashing and openly challenging him, blames him for Leslie’s death. The girls remain blindly loyal, but the cake has begun to crumble, and it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.
If Ben’s kids are starting to have doubts, so are we, the viewers. The more he and his family interact with the greater community, the more his counter-culture hero mantle slips, exposing the intolerably smug, controlling bighead lurking beneath. Finally, even Ben begins to doubt himself and his parenting.
While it’s a relief that writer/director Matt Ross deflates his hero and confronts him with a few home truths, there’s a sense that he does so a little begrudgingly. It’s almost as if Ross himself is seduced by his lead character. This may go some way towards explaining why the film veers off into sentimentality and happyendingsville. Then again, realism isn’t an integral part of its weave.
Your response to Captain Fantastic will largely depend on your perception of Ben. Blinkered leftist alternative types will love him and the film; others may be less enthused. Regardless, it is well-acted, an absorbing watch and for the most part a fun ride, and is certain to inspire much discussion on parenting. It certainly raises plenty of questions on the topic, but answers are a little less forthcoming.
Movie website: http://www.bleeckerstreetmedia.com/captainfantastic
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