Synopsis – In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent.
My Take – Why are Indie films so great? Maybe because there is no big budget studio interfering with writer or director’s version of a unique story. Such seems like the case of this superbly written, acted, musically scored, shot and directed film, which with the involvement of a major studio would not have explored the themes inside. Having won Matt Ross, the best director award in the “Un Certain Regard” showing at the Cannes Film Festival in May, this film is without a doubt the most unconventional family film I have ever seen. Actor Matt Ross, who is possibly recognizable from Face/Off, Aviator or American Psycho, writes and directs his second main feature (after 2012’s 28 Hotel Rooms) around the theme of parenting. Of course, there is no manual to being a parent. Even though there seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful, one can only follow your instincts. This film explores an extreme version of social isolation, home schooling and naturalistic living. Here, director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional. While loosely based on his own upbringing, he has managed to shine a light on the struggles faced by individuals who attempt to live according to their own values and beliefs which differ from society’s norm along with being suffused with social commentary on the education system, parenting techniques, societal norms and the handling of grief. If you don’t care for beautiful cinematography, good writing, and a sophisticated story line, this film is probably not your cup of tea.
The story follows Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father of six, living deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, far from modern life. All six children, the oldest Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks) to the youngest Nai (Charlie Shotwell) are fluent in philosophy, history and quantum theory, and can hunt and fend for themselves in the wilderness. At least that is until Ben finds out from his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) that his wife Leslie (Trin Miller), who was being treated in the city for her bipolar disorder had committed suicide leading the family to clash with the principles of the modern society. The family’s ideals further come under stress when his late wife’s rich father Jack (Frank Langella) who hates the life Ben has created for his family comes into the picture, and forbids Ben from attending Leslie’s funeral, threatening him with arrest. When Ben and his children visit his sister Harper and her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) home and meet their much more conventional family, and her smart phone-obsessed children, Ben criticizes their upbringing, only to have his sister bring his own parenting skills into question. Realizing that he has in fact not prepared his children at all for what lies outside their forest. Bodevan, for example, accepted in a swarm of the top colleges and adept enough to kill a deer single-handedly, cannot bring himself to talk to a girl (Erin Moriarty) without immediately proposing to her. The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. The realness and rawness of this film aligns perfectly with Ben’s choice in parenting and survival instincts in the wilderness. We are easily immersed into the idea that civilization and its systems of government are toxic and that we as a people who take part in it are living the wrong life. A film that can manipulate at such a high degree is a great example of a film with a genius plot. Aesthetically on high-level, questioning the most important points of human life and importance of verbal, mental, physical, social, emotional development and the inability of developing them all on the same level. There are so many factors that influence one’s development. And there is space for many mistakes. 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 certain reaction 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 emphasize 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. I enjoyed the fact that though I feel the makers of this film have a predilection to fall towards one side of the argument this film makes as to whether the way the protagonist raises his children is right or wrong, it makes cogent arguments that each case has its good and bad points. Personally I can see the attraction of the simple life they lead, but can also see how it would make them completely unprepared for the real world they would face, if say something happened to the father. They are incredibly well educated, but as the eldest son states to his father during an argument, he understands nothing he hasn’t learned in a book. I also like the way the film explores both the lifestyles of the family and that of those they encounter on their road trip to their mothers funeral, pointing out the incompatibilities and incongruities of each without making a case that one is better than the other, well maybe something of a case for one but while pointing out its drawbacks. Though it is clear that a rebellion against the system is why Ben raises his kids like he does, you have to wonder when it comes to him, and Leslie, what made them decide to have this lifestyle? How did they meet, and little things of that nature. Outside of that, there doesn’t seem to be any big issue to dwell on here and I don’t think I’m saying that purely due to the elation of just finishing the film. 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. In what could have easily turned into a one-dimensional harsh/rich character, Frank Langella provides a certain empathy and deep grief over his daughter’s death. Ann Dowd, Steve Zahn, Kathryn Hahn play their parts well. Among the kids, Nicholas Hamilton, Annalise Basso, Shree Cooks & George MacKay stand out. Samatha Isler & Erin Moriarty are good. On the whole, ‘Captain Fantastic’ is a solid drama that uses humor to explore the complexities of human relationships and provides a sweet coming of age story.
Directed – Matt Ross
Rated – R
Run Time – 118 minutes