Captain Fantastic lives up to its name

Judging by the poster, one might mistake Captain Fantastic for a Wes Anderson film or a cheap knockoff of Little Miss Sunshine. Instead, it is a charming independent film from new director Matt Ross. Starring Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen in the titular role, this spellbinding film hits all the right notes in all the right places.

Centring on a family living in the wilderness of the United States’ Pacific Northwest, Captain Fantastic tells the story of a father, Ben, intent on raising his six children outside the reaches of mainstream society. With the aim of making them physically and intellectually strong, Ben teaches his children to denounce capitalism and consumerism and instead appreciate nature, literature, philosophy and science.

When Ben’s wife dies, the family embarks on a road trip to honour her last will and testament, which inadvertently exposes the children to a formerly forbidden society.

Given the film’s critique of a capitalist and consumerist society, Captain Fantastic could easily have been a meandering mess, filled with moody stares and cheesy, existential dialogue. Luckily, the film departs from such clichés and demonstrates a clear theme through effective character development.

With humour and wit, the storyline does not take itself too seriously and successfully engages the audience. Great moments, such as a “birds and the bees” scene, justified the $10 admission price.

Stylistically, the main characters would surely approve of the film’s organic production. Many scenes are shot with a handheld camera, a common technique used to depict realism and intimacy.

Road-trip reading list. illustration/jeff mann.
Road-trip reading list. illustration/jeff mann.

The colour palette explodes with earthy greens, browns, yellows and blues. Lens flares often invade the frame, a technical imperfection the film uses to its advantage.

Delightfully minimalist, much of the soundtrack happily uses diegetic sounds: birds, wind, rustling branches, and crunching dirt. At one point, a character soulfully sings a thematically appropriate version of a classic tune, bringing tears to the viewers’ eyes.

When the family enters the city, the soundtrack bursts into rock-and-roll and the camera movements become fluid as the energy rises. They are now in a world alien to them, and the film’s atmosphere adjusts accordingly.

The cast makes for a fantastic ensemble, with Mortensen at his best. He plays Ben perfectly: sometimes crazy, sometimes sincere, but always honest. George MacKay expertly directs the child actors’ charismatic performances – no small feat when there are six of them.

The supporting cast equally delights, with strong performances by legendary Frank Langella and comedy veterans Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn, who perfectly play their roles as “mainstream” family relations.

If a film is only as strong as its hold over an audience, Captain Fantastic is a puppet-master. The film expertly pulls moviegoers from high to low and back up again. At one moment, laughter fills the theatre; in the next, shocked silence.

Captain Fantastic is a slow burn, growing on you the longer it lasts. With twenty minutes left, I scribbled in my notebook, “How will this end?” An unpredictable film, half road-trip and half underdog success story, it is certainly a film to remember.

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