Captain Fantastic begins with the death of a boy and the birth of a man. What a gem of a film! We had to sit at the front row because of a full-house screening, but the punishing ordeal was but a breeze as 2 hours whizzed by.
Viggo Mortensen plays a Renaissance man Ben who is out of this world, but never out of his depth. He is a father to six children and they live off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, eating off the land. Every day he home-schools his children in jungle survival skills, hand-to-hand combat, vertical rock-face climbing and pushes their fitness levels to way off the charts. The children, ranging from an 8-year-old to a 17-year-old, are fluent in philosophy, history, literature, foreign languages (including mandarin!), music and even quantum theory! Their mother’s death forces the family of 7 to board the family bus named Steve for modern society. Ben and his posse of 6 aren’t quite ready for the cruel world and the world aren’t quite ready for Ben, Bolevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai – all original names lovingly created by their parents because they feel their names should reflect the fact that each one of them is unique. OMG I want one too!
The film is superbly written, acted, musically scored, shot and directed. It is suffused with social commentary on the education system, parenting techniques, societal norms and the handling of grief. Writer-director Matt Ross never pushes one agenda over another, allowing a scene to play out nicely. It takes a lot of restraint to present both sides of the argument without screaming in your face what you should do. In so doing I start to question the different ways of upbringing and which side of the fence I will sit on. Watch out for a pivotal scene at the dinner table where two families gather. You know a WWIII is about to happen as the youngest girl asks to taste wine and the man of the house is trying very hard to explain how did Aunt Harper, Ben’s wife, die. The scene is hilarious and thought provoking as two schools of thought on parenting come into loggerheads with one another.
There is another scene that rings emphatically true for me. Being an educator for the longest time, I have always felt teachers in classrooms predominantly emphasise the “how” and “what” in lessons. The “why” is usually treated as a cursory by-line because the “how-s” and the “what-s” will get a student through the huddles of exams and tests. Ben notices Vespyr is reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a book way ahead of her Literature curve, and proceeds to ask her what she thinks of it. An ubiquitous “it is interesting” comment rings out and in Ben’s family mantra “interesting” is a non-word. He coaxes out more depth and analysis from her and her reply will put pride in any parent or an educator.
The film rests on Viggo Mortensen’s shoulders and he is perfectly cast. He embodies all the attributes of a father – authoritarian, hardheadedness, arrogant, eccentric, kind, warm, understanding and respectful. All through it, his grace, love and adoration for his children shine out like a beacon in a dark place. This is flat-out effortlessly one of the best performances I have seen this year. The rest of the kids are also captivatingly natural and raw. I read in an interview that Ross would linger the camera on the kids to capture them in a natural state so as to bring out the best in them. If their antics and love for learning don’t hit a raw nerve in you, it probably means you have already been molded and indoctrinated by the society.
The last act feels a little too neat and tidy for my liking but it doesn’t take away the fact that this is one of those rare movies that truly engages your intellectual mind, endeavours to question societal norms and dares to “stick it to the man”. How it does all this without being high-handedly preachy is FANTASTIC! I particularly love the last sendoff scene. To me it means our lives don’t have to be someone else’s idea of what we should be. We can be what we choose. And if anyone is ever in a position to take our lives away from us? We should do something about that.
4 / 5
PS – I love the songs and music. I was pretty sure Sigur Ros is featured in many of the rousing scenes and hanged back for the credits-roll. I was right! Jonsi and Alex Somers collaborated on the score and a Sigur Ros tune Valõeldur, off their Valtari album, is featured. These are some of the songs featured.