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Movie Curiosities: Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic sets its stage in the beautiful wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. This is where we meet the peculiar Cash family, headed by Viggo Mortensen in the role of Ben Cash. This family is… um… well, we’ll put it this way: Instead of celebrating Christmas — a capitalist nightmare of a holiday ostensibly set aside to celebrate the birth of a fictional elf — this family celebrates the December birth of Noam Chomsky.

Yeah, this is a family so far to the left that calling them “hippies” would still seem like too much of an understatement. Ben and his wife (Leslie, played by Trin Miller) were apparently so fed up with the fat, stupid, corrupt condition of America that they decided to check out entirely and raise their six children (!!!) out in the boondocks. And they do a surprisingly good job of it.

Even the youngest children are adept at hunting and growing their own food. They know first aid, and they’re all in impeccable physical shape. Anyone in this family could navigate any possible terrain with nothing but the stars, and survive out in the open with nothing but a knife (or a bow and arrow. If they ever used guns, I don’t recall seeing any in the film). Also, the whole family is so well-read that they speak multiple languages, they’re familiar with everything from religious dogma to theoretical physics, and their knowledge of classical art is impressive by any standard.

Sounds like they’re invincible, right? Well, it turns out that Leslie was so mentally ill that she had to spend a few months away from home. Then she went and killed herself.

Obviously, the family is shaken. As the film progresses, there are some very serious questions about whether anything more could have been done, or if her life out in the sticks somehow made things even worse. As if that wasn’t enough, Leslie’s father (Jack, played by Frank Langella) has taken Leslie’s remains for a good old-fashioned Christian burial, even though Leslie made it perfectly clear in her will that she abhorred organized religion and wanted to be cremated.

Thus the family takes a road trip (in their bus/mobile home, affectionately named Steve) down to New Mexico so they can say goodbye to their matriarch, and to give her a more proper funeral if they can. I’ll remind you that this is the furthest away from home the kids have ever been, and it’s their first time interacting with anyone who wasn’t their own flesh and blood.

(Side note: On their way down to New Mexico, they pass through sweet home Portland, west across the beautiful Fremont Bridge. The film never explains why the family decided to get on I-405 when they were already on I-5 southbound. Did they want to drive through downtown? Did they take a detour to Beaverton or Hillsboro for some reason? Did they take a trip to the beach at some point off camera? We can only speculate.)

So far, this might sound like your basic story about a group of oddballs struggling against a society that doesn’t understand them. It may also sound like a family conflict between two father figures (specifically Ben and Jack) regarding what’s best for the children in their lives. And while both angles are very clear and present aspects of the film, there’s a lot more going on here.

To start with, Ben argues that he has more than capably equipped his children with a variety of useful skills, and any one of them could make a decent living in the real world. Of course, the real truth is that he’s only really equipped them for a living out in the forest. More specifically, as we see throughout the film, this family was very specifically designed to function in isolation.

There’s a point when we meet Ben’s sister (Harper, played by Kathryn Hahn), in addition to her husband (played by Steve Zahn) and her two kids (played by Teddy Van Ee and Elijah Stevenson). The two families quickly prove incapable of connecting with each other on any level. More than that, Harper’s children are shown to be soft and undisciplined, especially next to Ben’s kids. What’s even better is that the public education of Harper’s kids is shown to be far outstripped by the homeschooling of Ben’s children.

That said, as much as Ben may scoff at his nephews for their addiction to the Internet, pop culture, and so on, those things do serve a greater purpose. After all, the Internet was made for the express purpose of bringing people together and making communication easier. The kid playing on his iPhone could be making friends all over the world, and his cousins from the forest will never know what that’s like.

Additionally, it’s so easy to forget that pop culture can build bridges as well. It’s so much easier to make new friends when shared recognition over some TV show or video game can help to break the ice. This comes back into play when the eldest son (Bodevan, played by George McKay) has an adorably embarrassing encounter with a pretty young woman played by Erin Moriarty. Of course Bo has no idea what to do with his hormones or how to approach another human being, and the attempted romance goes terribly wrong.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention veteran character actress Missi Pyle, who gets maybe ten seconds of screen time as Erin Moriarty’s mother.)

Incidentally, the other five kids are named Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja, and Nai. (Respectively played by Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, and Charlie Shotwell. Also, I’m pretty sure that the autocorrect on my phone just blew a fuse.) These names were all made up on the fly by Ben and Leslie, specifically so there would never ever be anyone else with these names. It’s another way in which the kids were made to be unique. Of course, as the kids come to learn, there is a very fine line between being an empowered individual and being a freak.

All throughout the film, the supporting characters insist that Ben’s children need to go to a proper school. Ben objects on the grounds that he can offer a far better education, and it’s clearly shown that he probably could. But there are other factors that are just as important, if not more so. The obvious one is learning how to interact with other kids their age, which seems to be something that Ben either can’t or won’t admit is necessary.

Another important factor is safety. Of course it goes without saying that trying to find the right balance of protecting children just enough is one of the hardest parts of parenthood. With regard to this specific parent, Ben and his kids all seem to think of themselves as inherently stronger and smarter than the average person. And even if they’re right (which, let’s face it, they probably are), the fact remains that they are not demigods. They’re still mortal, as Leslie has already proven. More than that, these are kids. And they’re living such dangerous lives that any one slip-up could be their last. The family is very specifically designed so that all they have is each other, so how could the others possibly fare if (another) one of them dies? Especially if they die under conditions that might easily have been prevented or avoided?

This brings me to another crucial point about this family and their lifestyle: However great it may be, it was never built to last. There’s a very serious question of what these kids are supposed to do after Ben is gone, and how this commune is supposed to keep going without a next generation. Additionally, these are such smart and talented kids with so much to offer — what’s the point of learning so many wondrous things if they’re not going to go out and share their abilities with they’re rest of the world? Just what was the long-term plan here? Granted, it’s implied that Leslie might have had some ideas on the subject, but it’s up in the air whether Ben will have the strength or the wisdom to follow through on that without her.

Which brings me to the star of the show. Viggo Mortensen thoroughly owns this role from start to finish. After all, the role called for someone who could be a wise and caring father figure while also coming off as a wild man used to rugged life in places unknown, so of course the once and future king of Gondor knocks it out of the park. Perhaps more importantly, Mortensen does an incredible job of selling the character’s intelligence. Ben is very soft-spoken and he’s always sincerely interested in a constructive discussion, which keeps the character likeable in spite of his own bullheaded confidence that he’s always right about everything. Granted, his justifications are all so flawlessly logical that he’s certainly never wrong, but that’s not the same thing as always being right. Truly, Ben is living proof that you don’t have to be a dick to be an arrogant son of a bitch.

It’s also noteworthy that Ben is alarmingly honest. Whether he’s talking with his eight-year-old son about rape and sexual intercourse, or whether he’s talking about his wife’s mental illness and suicide, he speaks in a way that’s very clinical and matter-of-fact. He goes into way more detail than anyone else might in polite company or around children, but not because he enjoys such talk — he’s just telling the truth. Nothing more and nothing less.

This fits with Ben’s philosophy that people — especially children — need to be tough enough to face the world and its challenges head-on. Compare that to other adults (specifically Harper), who would rather console themselves and their children with euphemisms, half-truths, or even outright lies in the effort of sparing them (and themselves) the full brunt of a truth that may be too much to handle. It’s the classic age-old debate between brutal honesty and sugar-coated tact, and the question of which is the healthier way to deal with something awful.

I could keep on talking for quite some time about all the various themes and conflicts at play in this film. There really is so much going on. Which makes it all the more depressing that the movie feels so badly paced. No joke, this feels like a 90-minute movie that was inexplicably stretched out to two hours. There were way too many times (particularly in the first and third acts) when I knew exactly where the film was headed, and it seemed like even the characters knew where they were headed, and I was left begging for everyone to just get on with it and go there already. The denouement is a particularly awful case in point — I wish I had kept track of how many times the movie ended.

What makes the padding even worse is that while the film will linger on the (admittedly gorgeous) outdoor shots and the occasional music number, that time might have been better spent on aspects of the plot that really needed elaboration. The obvious example concerns the six children. Bo gets a neat development arc as he struggles with coming into his own as a legal adult in all this madness, Rellian gets a heartbreaking storyline as he tries to cope with his mother’s death, and Nai is established as the curious and precocious little comic relief. But the other three (all female, strangely enough) get virtually nothing.

The plot runs into quite a few problems as well. My favorite example concerns the ending, which barrels right on through at least a hundred plot holes in the effort to provide a way happier ending than the film probably needed or deserved. There’s also a straight-up shoplifting scene orchestrated by Ben and his kids, and that was a huge mistake. So much of what makes this family so compelling is derived from how well their beliefs and actions are justified. But the moment they do something that is clearly wrong by any possible metric and without any kind of possible vindication, the film loses a whole lotta points.

But even in spite of the shoddy plotting and the uneven pacing, I have no problem giving Captain Fantastic a recommendation. Viggo Mortensen leads a rock-solid cast of actors, every one of whom turns in some powerful work. Not only are the outdoor shots absolutely gorgeous, but this is one of the few films I’ve seen in which handheld camera and close-up shots were used in a way that consistently enhanced the final product. Most importantly, the film raises so many questions about parenting, individuality, education, mourning, family, and so on. All of these issues are explored with surprising depth and intelligence, and all are made even more poignant by way of the amazing cast.

Definitely give this one a look if it’s playing near you.

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