“Captain Fantastic” – According to the U.S. Department of Education, 3.4 percent of American children are homeschooled. Over the years, advocates and opponents of the practice have enjoyed a healthy debate between its pros and cons, and from a layman’s perspective, I have always seen both sides of the argument. In “Captain Fantastic”, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and Leslie (Trin Miller) introduce their six children to the ultimate homeschooling curriculum by taking their entire family “off the grid” and living off the land in the Pacific Northwest. Their views of education and parenting are certainly unique in the face of 2016’s creature comforts and luxuries, and writer/director Matt Ross delivers a most emotional story in an appropriately organic way.
The movie does not begin fantastically but dangerously and viscerally in a primal display of nature’s order, namely, man over beast. Ross dramatically and immediately knocks you back in your theatre seat and sets an early tone regarding this family’s living arrangements. Now, rather than continuing to focus on the initial savagery, the camera – instead – lightly dots all over their camp in which three boys and three girls manage watering schedules, prepare meals and start campfires. They orchestrate their work – accompanied by the film’s beautiful new age soundtrack (which frequently and welcomingly appears throughout the picture) – but these activities are balanced by later reveals of textbook learning, Zen-like discipline and physical training. These children, ranging from (roughly) six to 18, are living and breathing renaissance beings who impress us with their physical prowess, mastery of multiple languages and vast knowledge of abstract concepts and philosophies.
Ben and Leslie wanted to raise their kids in a natural and unspoiled environment. Ross, in turn, introduces us to this family’s world and succeeds in placing the audience on a mental pendulum between deciding if this unprocessed lifestyle is actually good for the children or not. Most of the time, I was fairly supportive of Ben and Leslie’s methods, and especially when the kids frequently displayed their inquisitive instincts and intelligence by – for example – critiquing the novel “Lolita” or explaining the “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” U.S. Supreme Court decision. At one point, Ross adds Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her family into the mix, and their contrasting, suburban inclusion helps give an ironic, healthy credence to Ben and Leslie’s nonconformist methods.
On the other hand, the eldest, Bo (George MacKay), suffers through a painfully awkward life lesson due to his extreme naivety of the outside world, and his episode will make every man shudder in embarrassment for him. True doubt certainly creeps into Ben’s worldview and set of mores. There is no denying, however, this family’s love and refreshing support for one other, and the effect is most impressive and ultimately pleasing. The child actors offer convincing performances by bonding with their characters’ whip-smart personas and emotive cores.
The movie easily flows due to the kids’ believable efforts, but Mortensen’s terrific performance is central in harmonizing the picture with an earthy, grounded strength woven into an unorthodox point of view. Ben is not infallible, however, and Ross smartly presents his vulnerability and struggles by literally placing him underneath a gorgeous waterfall and an average showerhead in helping him cope with two crises. We see that Ben raises his children the best way that he knows but – even he – does not have all the answers.
I believe they call that parenting.
“Captain Fantastic” is a film bathed in eccentric thinking, but – at its core – is simply about love, kinship and family. It strikes affecting chords with, admittedly, familiar themes but in a wholly unique narrative and into one of the most memorable and satisfying films of 2016.
Image credits: Bleecker Street; Trailer credits: Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films