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September 3, 2017

Captain Fantastic

by Franz Patrick


Captain Fantastic (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Too few movies end in such a way that we know exactly what the main character is feeling, thinking, and hoping for precisely because we had gone through a defining journey with him or her. “Captain Fantastic,” confidently written and directed by Matt Ross, ends in silence, just as it should, because it has said and done everything it needed to in order to provide its viewers a complete, worthwhile, unique story about a man named Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who has raised his six children in the wilderness (George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell).

Some might say the picture is about parenting, whether it is right or wrong of Ben to choose for his children to grow up away from modern society, including all the good and bad things it offers. But more discerning viewers will recognize the material strives to show more than that. It is about observing a specific lifestyle, how it works, when it does not, the challenges it brings, how it contrasts with our very own every day lives. What it shows is an alternative. Sometimes it is refreshing, other times it is amusing, occasionally it can be uncomfortable, questionable. I argue it is not about right or wrong but the blurring of these two ideas. It is perfectly captured during the dialogue shared between father and daughter, the latter explaining how Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” makes her feel and why it makes her feel that way.

In less capable hands, the children would have likely ended up as cartoon characters, all exaggeration and not enough substance. While each has his or her own quirk, notice their beautifully drawn interior details. Particularly intriguing is the rebellious Rellian. He grows increasingly angry with his father especially after hearing news that their mother (Trin Miller), confined in an institution, had slit her wrists and died. Rellian personifies the confusion, helplessness, and frustration the family feels as a unit. On the surface, the boy might come across as the most vocal, daring, a contrarian. At the same time, I argue, he is one of the most sensitive, most feeling of the bunch.

Hilarious moments ensue when Ben and his children interact with members of modern society. A standout involves a visit to Ben’s sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), before the funeral. The contrasting cousins offers one level of comedy. But look underneath the epidermis. The dinner scene is combustible exactly because it is a boxing ring of opposing ideologies. It asks the viewer to consider how one would rather raise children: protecting young minds so much that they know pretty much nothing or giving them a chance to be as knowledgeable about the world to the point where there is barely any filter between parent and child. Most may likely say the happiest medium is the middle ground, but, in all honesty, the latter approach is more appealing to me. However, there is no universal correct answer for it all depends on what a family, as a unit, chooses to value.

“Captain Fantastic” made me think of Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” one of my favorite pictures post-2000, not because they share a certain look, or plot, or any surface characteristics. No, it is because they both touch upon a certain feeling of alienation toward modern society, how we somehow, over time, have lost touch of what should matter to us as intelligent beings who are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for.

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