Writer and director Matt Ross is a relative newcomer to filmmaking; Captain Fantastic is the former actor’s second feature film, one which was given the award for directing at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It shows, on the one hand, creativity and a distinctive point of view; but on the other, an inattention to detail and continuity. The latter did not by any means ruin this original and engaging story, but it might create an obstacle to many viewers’ enjoyment of the film. That would be unfortunate, because the story is a unique, entertaining drama with a sharp sense of humour, which deftly challenges the audience’s assumptions and open-mindedness.
The film begins by introducing the Cash family and their unusual way of life. Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is the father of six children, ranging in age from eight to seventeen. The family reside on a remote piece of natural forest in the north-western U.S., where they live a Spartan but happy and varied life. (Ben is not employed outside the home; their source of income is not examined closely, but seems to come primarily from earlier investments and from the sale of handicrafts.) Ben, who is something of a survivalist, puts the children through rigorous physical training and teaches them wilderness skills, from rock climbing to hunting. They eat little that they do not grow or kill themselves, and are clearly strong and healthy.
The children are taught at home rather than attending school, but it is made clear that their formal instruction is not neglected. Under Ben’s loving but demanding oversight, they undergo an intensive and wide-ranging education, well beyond what they might receive in a state school. All the children are well-read above their expected grade level, fluent in multiple languages, and able to converse intelligently on many subjects.
The family is also unconventional in other ways. The parents are staunch socialists and have no use for organised religion, and pass their ideals on to their children. Instead of celebrating Christmas, for example, the family celebrate the birthday of Noam Chomsky. Phrases like “power to the people” and truisms about the evils of capitalism are as familiar to the children as the alphabet. The older children have a sense of humour about all this, and feel free to tease Ben gently about his firmly held convictions.The film takes pains to show us the family’s daily life in great detail, demonstrating the ingenuity they have used to provide themselves with necessities like housing, clean water, and transportation with a painstakingly planned setting. While there is no attempt to soft-pedal some of Ben’s more extreme, even risky parenting choices, it is also clear that the family is close, affectionate, and happy; that Ben is a demanding but very beloved father, somewhat overbearing but also respectful of the children’s opinions, and that the children reflect this by being respectful, yet unafraid and outspoken. The entire clan is given a strange, bohemian charm.
At the outset, only one sorrow mars the family’s arduous but happy wilderness idyll: the children’s mother, Ben’s wife Leslie, is absent as the story begins. She is in hospital, being treated for bipolar disorder, a condition which had gradually worsened over the years. Ben has reluctantly agreed to have his wife hospitalised close to where her parents live, over a thousand miles from the Cash homestead, in return for Leslie’s parents paying for the treatment.
It is worth noting for future reference that we hear almost nothing directly from Leslie herself. Her views, preferences, and feelings are all expressed through the filter of others: her husband, her father, her children, her other relations. This is significant, as Leslie soon becomes the centre of a family controversy.
The situation changes when Ben is informed that Leslie has committed suicide. The family’s mourning is compounded by Leslie’s father, Jack (Frank Langella), angrily banning the entire family from the funeral. He is convinced that their unusual lifestyle had contributed to Leslie’s condition, and blames Ben for her death. Ben, after some thought, decides to defy Jack, and drives across country with the six children to attend their mother’s funeral.
From this point, one conflict after another begin to arise, and Ben’s convictions undergo a series of uncomfortable challenges. On the long drive, the children encounter “normal” lives at close range, inspiring curiosity and comparisons. The eldest son (brilliantly played by George MacKay) begins to worry that he is unprepared for life outside his family compound, and shocks Ben by announcing that he has secretly applied to attend university. One of the children, a boy named Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), seems to share his grandfather’s belief that Leslie’s death was hastened by his father’s extremist views. The children begin to ask uncomfortable questions of their father, and the stage is set for a rift in the formerly unified family.
Leslie’s funeral is a series of painful moments and misunderstandings, at which the eccentric Cashes are completely out of place. Their comically jarring entrance into the tasteful suburban chapel, dressed in their usual jumble of used and homemade clothing, announces the culture clash that is about to take place. The family find themselves at odds with Leslie’s relations, and Ben is ejected from the funeral service.Soon after the funeral, grandfather Jack, supported by the resentful middle child Rellian, announces that he intends to challenge Ben’s fitness as a parent and take custody of his children. The story reaches a climax as the two men’s dispute escalates. Again, the film avoids taking sides in an absolute way. Jack is not demonised, but is shown to be genuinely caring beneath his hostile exterior; and some of Ben’s more questionable choices are brought out in the course of the conflict.
Demoralised by a series of unfortunate events and perceived betrayals, Ben finds himself questioning not only his most cherished beliefs, but his own adequacy as a husband and father. In his depression, he seriously considers allowing Jack to take custody of the six children for their own good.
Just as things look bleakest for Ben, the story takes an abrupt turn, in a series of events which are so peculiar, I briefly wondered if they were meant to be a fantasy or dream sequence. The six children, reaffirming their faith in Ben despite their disagreements, intervene and propose a drastic group “mission” in their mother’s memory, one which brings the family together and ultimately resolves their troubles. The scenes which follow are well handled, even moving, but also involve content which pushes past the merely eccentric, and strains the viewer’s tolerance – which seems to be part of the intention.The film’s conclusion leaves all characters reconsidering their position and accepting necessary compromises. We are left with no clearly defined ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy,’ and the final scenes, while providing a satisfactory conclusion, deviate from a predictable ‘happy ending.’ This is in keeping with the film’s approach, which is to continually challenge the audience to question their biases and first impressions, just as the main characters are doing.
The film has a few flaws, particularly in the story outline of the final half hour or so, which is riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, continuity problems, and implausible events. The storyline is tight, seamless, and continually engrossing, to the extent that these problems can easily be overlooked, at least during a first viewing.
Apart from the continuity issues, the film is well done in every way, including its set design and wonderful musical score. The cast is excellent, in particular the lead adversaries Jack and Ben, but including the six primary child actors, who are delightful as free-range children exploring the world in their own respective ways, and who maintain their individuality even when acting as a group.
This is a fascinating and optimistic take on unconventional choices and the responsibilities that accompany them, and on the significance of family. It is also one of the more provocative and entertaining features to come out this year.