CAPTAIN FANTASTIC Review

Captain Fantastic director Matt Ross sure seems to have a grudge against Christianity. Or organized religion in general (which doesn't include Buddhism despite the fact there is a degree of organization that ensures rituals take place and dates are observed) as his directorial debut takes large aim at the followers of Jesus Christ and more or less insults them to a degree that doesn't offer enlightening or insightful reasons as to why these characters think a certain way nor does it provide a compelling alternative, but rather sticks to calling out an entire group of people without stepping back to recognize its own shortcomings. It is understandable given there are plenty of Christians who give what is intended to be a religion based on love above everything else a bad name with hateful words and actions just as I assume there are atheists or followers of other faiths that aren't exactly representative of the best of those organizations or groups core values. Still, as the largest religion in the world by a large margin it is understandable why Christianity takes most of the heat. It has the most variations thus numerous perspectives from which it can be criticized. As a practicing Christian I don't tend to get offended by those who hurl insults for if I'm wrong then so be it, but if I'm right then even better. Why wouldn't we want there to be something more to this life, though? Don't we all need something to look forward to? Isn't that how we continue to thrive and push on in our current lives? Looking forward to what's next? It's a question I find myself considering often when it seems those opposed to the existence of God seem to want to be right more than they want to actually consider the alternative. There is a difference in insulting a religion or system of beliefs in and of itself and insulting the people who decide to base their lives on those beliefs. Often, films with an agenda to oppose organized religion will call out the many available flaws and lack of proof such beliefs are based on rather than the intelligence of those who believe, but Captain Fantastic clearly has a vendetta against those who find comfort in their faith-even if that ends up being all it is. As human beings we need a little assurance, we need something to sometimes make our existence bearable and if religion or faith does that for someone, why should it bother those who don't need it? I don't have the answer to that question and the problem with Captain Fantastic is that it doesn't either.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) strums his guitar in hopes of encouraging his children to join in.
Before this becomes an entire essay on theology and the many caveats of such systems let's back up and discuss the major points of Ross's film. Captain Fantastic follows Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who, along with his wife Leslie (Trin Miller), decided to live off the grid and raise their uniquely named children, Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), in a cabin in the mountains of the pacific northwest. This lifestyle entails deviating from traditional schooling and traditional features of western culture in general-things such as shopping, the aforementioned organized religion, and basically anything having to deal with fascism in general are looked down upon. Instead, Ben leans on imbuing his children with the ideologies of socialism and basic survival skills. Not only will his offspring be in peak physical condition, but they will be academics who can both recite the amendments as well as give detailed analysis of each. As a result, Ben and Leslie have thus far produced critical thinkers who know how to hunt, forage and grow their own food and successful in developing genuine critical thinkers. When we are introduced to this clan it is in the midst of Ben dealing with Leslie's bipolar diagnosis as it is becoming progressively worse. Despite Ben not believing in western medicine (of course), Leslie has reached a point where someone needs to intervene compelling Ben to contact Leslie's parents (played wonderfully by Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) to ask for their help in getting their daughter help. It is here that Leslie commits suicide. In light of this, old wounds and opinions are brought to the surface as Leslie's father bans Ben from coming to his daughter's funeral, blaming him for what happened to Leslie and for subjecting his grandchildren to what he considers abuse. Unable to accept that Leslie's parents will give her a funeral in accordance with their Christian beliefs rather than her last will and testament (Leslie was an avid Buddhist), Ben and the children set out on their bus (their bus named Steve if this wasn't quirky enough already) to crash the funeral and honor his late wife and his children's mothers last wishes.

Fifteen or so minutes into Captain Fantastic I was on the verge of puking from the amount of pretension that was on display. I never considered getting up and walking out due simply to my curiosity as to where this set of circumstances might take our characters and how Ross might come to show us what he was trying to say, but to put it simply: Captain Fantastic is one of those movies that black people would refer to as a, "silly white people problem movie." Though Mortensen's Ben seems to like to think he is operating a rung above the rest of modern American culture there comes to be several instances throughout the film that display his inability to measure up or overcome the system he is so fond of tearing down. Whether it be in Rellian's constant use of "fuck" that seems to discredit all of Ben's hard work to create intellectual and articulate spawn despite the fact they'd likely defend such language through their opposition to social constructs that have deemed certain words bad and other words acceptable to the films own inability to realize a home schooled/Jesus freak facade that is put on to distract and move an inquiring police officer off their scent would seemingly only be more cause for alarm to said officer than not. That's without even bringing up the whole "free the food" segment the movie features where some of our band of protagonists create a distraction while the others steal food and make their way back to the bus without any management or employees noticing. A mission that, given they largely stole fruits and vegetables rather than anything processed, likely robbed hard-working farmers more so than it did independently owned corporations. All of this is brought up to highlight the inherent flaw that exists throughout the film: that Ben has become so angry at the world and has translated this rage to his children in such a way that it's given them cause for hating how the world treats those who are different when they are as quick to alienate their own when they don't want to necessarily conform to Ben's way of life. Ben is a man of extremes-going from one situation to the next always with the need to push and force rather than feel out or try to understand. Ben is a man who needs balance-just as we're all searching for, but whose journey to find as much is a movie as confused about that concept as he is.

Ben, along with his five children, crash the funeral of his deceased wife and their mother in order to prove a point.
Therefore, Captain Fantastic is a movie of battling philosophies featuring a script that hasn't been refined enough to thoroughly or equivocally convey all that it seems to want to say. That being said, Captain Fantastic inevitably has some fascinating aspects simply by virtue of having so many ideas and agendas floating around. There are fascinating relationships developed that concern themselves with how individuals can be hard-pressed to accept who their loved ones actually are. Whether it be the one between Langella's overbearing and conservative father-in-law to Mortensen's freewheeling Ben or Ben with his younger sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), and her husband (Steve Zahn) as they battle over how honest to be with their children. Ben sees no qualms with being completely open and frank with his kids whereas Harper believes that protecting children from concepts they are too young to comprehend isn't lying to them. This argument in particular displays the growth of the Captain Fantastic screenplay as one can feel Ross coming around to a more well-rounded and well-balanced perspective that includes both ends of the spectrum rather than only Ben's drastic measures. This conflict echoes throughout the film for despite Ben's constant attempts to be more than sincere with his children, by attempting to somewhat push them to deny or conceal their emotions around losing their mother in favor of staying on task they are more or less lying to themselves. The performances feel natural as well even as the cast features a handful of young, inexperienced actors. Never do we feel as if we're watching child actors, but instead Mortensen leads his co-stars in a way that reflects a realistic and faithful interpretation of the bond between parent and child no matter the nurturing techniques. There is one scene in particular between Ben and his oldest daughter Kielyr as he asks her to explain what she is finding so interesting about Lolita. Kielyr responds with a lengthy, well-informed response about how she essentially hates the narrator, but at the same time feels sorry for him and is unable to put the book down. This is much the same way I feel about Ben. I didn't agree with everything he did and I didn't necessarily like him, but I was interested to see where his inclinations took him and how/where he might find some kind of peace. It is suggested Ben finds this in the realization that despite his children knowing about and of the world that he could never teach them how to be a part of it and it's when the film finally dawns upon this revelation as well that the movie overall improves. It's simply too little too late, especially when it feels the film has already gone on twenty minutes too long.