Otherworldly and whimsical, yet uncomfortably close to home. Matt Ross’ family drama picks at the mind of a society that’s shaped us.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Captain Fantastic is a wonderful film – one of those feel-good moments that walks out of the theatre with you. Yes, you may know the plot and the actors before you go in, but you won’t be prepared for the quality of its story and the humanity of its characters. It’s all about family, which is perfectly fine with me.
Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, a neo-hippie who has migrated his litter of six to the depths of the wild. Here they learn the ways of Mao and Marx, are taught how to hunt and fend for themselves, dutifully carry out domestic chores, learn several languages and multiple instruments, and tragically yearn for their ill mother to return to the fold. Where is she? That’s hardly the point. Captain Fantastic is infinitely more interested in Ben and his children, and quite frankly, so are we.
The plot is simple. Through pressing circumstances, the Cash household must journey into the city and reunite with Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn), her socially stunted sons, and Ben’s parents-in-law, which provides some funny and thoughtful scenes regarding upbringing, expectations, and liberal parentage. We don’t let our kids play with knives. That’s common sense. But in the wild, knives are used for scavenging, hunting, foraging, and are no less vital to survival than a university degree. That’s also common sense. Ben’s relationship with his children is based on this understanding and develops through trust and necessity. Shielding them from harmful influences – as deemed harmful by civic constructs – is one wrong step on the road to independence.
Had Captain Fantastic only been about Ben and his unorthodox methods, it might have fallen into the trap of naiveté and self-indulgence. But the movie pays attention to the other side of the argument – does encouraging your children to scale a sheer rock face at the age of seven, opening them up to cuts and bruises, count as child abuse? Do children need proper education and social skills? Is living in the wild too dangerous? Some of these questions are teased brilliantly in a scene where Ben’s family joins his sister’s for dinner, and uses brutal honesty to inadvertently ruin the night.
Back to the Cash matriarch. We never see her, except in semi-tangible dream state, but her reach is defined by the way her husband and children fondly recall her love. She acts as the plot’s catalyst and adhesive, and in many ways is its most important character.
Ultimately, that’s what Captain Fantastic is all about. Character. Or rather, seven different characters. Each Cash kid is ripe with personality and urgency, and they’re all pitched at slightly different levels so that we can stand from afar and identify with their perspectives. Their leader is, of course, Ben, whose macho ruggedness is underpinned by a deep-rooted sense of family and honour. He believes what he’s doing is right, no matter what the other people say. Mortensen fetches from within a steely compassion that extraordinarily makes him the perfect dad – he gives the single greatest talk about the birds and bees.
Captain Fantastic is a movie that knows the story it wants to tell and tells it in the best way possible. It rains down on the Cash children that one day they may no longer be leashed by their father. For the little ones, it’s a lesson hard-learnt. For the teenagers, I’m sure a part of them can’t wait to go out into the real world and maybe buy some new clothes, or feel the passion of a first kiss, or simply not have to slaughter deer for a living. The nest, such as it is, will have to empty.
Captain Fantastic is available in Australian cinemas from September 8th
Image courtesy of eOne Films