Sunday, February 5, 2017

Catching Up: "Captain Fantastic"


Instead of celebrating Christmas, the Cash family celebrates the birthday of liberal linguist Noam Chomsky.  The smallest among them, who is about seven years old, reads The Joy of Sex, while the oldest celebrates his 18th birthday by stalking and killing a deer, which becomes their dinner feast.

They live together in the vast and mountainous forests of Washington state, where many years the father and the mother decided to spurn the ways of modern society and raise their family away from the rest of the world.

When Captain Fantastic opens, the family seems more or less happy and well-adjusted under the leadership of their father, Ben, who's played by Viggo Mortensen in a role that is perfect for him.  Mortensen has always seemed like a free spirit, a borderline hippy, the kind of actor and artist who wants to be able to express himself freely in every part of his life.  That's the kind of character Ben is -- but there are some strange things going on, like the military precision he uses on his kids.  They seem less like children than experiments.  And there's the question of what happened to his wife, who is missing.

Her absence, it turns out, is what gets the story going.  After a long and detailed look at the way the Cashes live in the forest, Ben and his son Bo (George MacKay) set out on one of their infrequent excursions to the nearest general store, where Ben makes some money by selling crafts the kids make.  Before they leave, Ben promises to check on the status of the mother, who has been hospitalized after suffering a mental breakdown.  It's worse than that, though -- Ben gets word that his wife has died.

So, the family, after this extended preamble, venture out in their old school bus, which they've named "Steve," and makes a journey to her funeral, which will be held in New Mexico.  Their fish-out-of-water trip makes up the bulk of Captain Fantastic, which is as weird, quirky as the family itself.

The best parts of Captain Fantastic -- and there are a lot of them -- play off of our own discomfort with Ben and the choices he has made for his kids.  These are odd and unusual people, and the the movie doesn't hide from its gently leftist ideology that maybe it's them and not us who has got it figured out.

But it's smart enough to offer more than a few hints that the guy may be a genuine crackpot, a less angry but no less dangerous version of Allie Fox from Paul Theroux's great novel The Mosquito Coast.  And really, his liberal hippie ways aren't that far off from a right-wing survivalist nutjob.   Mortensen plays Ben with a much softer, more open-hearted vibe, but Captain Fantastic can never shake the fact that it's not quite as concerned as it should be with the real possibility that he's mentally unhinged, that his kids are incredibly smart but dangerously unaware of the world.  They've had a lifestyle and world-view foisted upon them by a father who claims to encourage free thinking.  Son Bo is so fearful of his father that he hides acceptance letters from leading schools, afraid of what the man will think.

While it has the outlines of a serious and thought-provoking drama, Captain Fantastic largely plays its plot for smiles (like the Chomsky-themed non-Christmas), sometimes even real laughs (like the sex-curious youngsters).  It's a little too light to be really thoughtful, but it's filled with themes that demand an intensity it can't quite achieve.  A scene between Mortensen and Ann Dowd as his mother in law, in particular, just gets going when it ends abruptly, missing an opportunity to push both the wilderness-living radical and his consumerist mother-in-law to places they hadn't thought to wander.

Still, Mortensen and the kids (MacKay gets the most screen time, but they're all terrific) deserve credit for making Captain Fantastic feel real and vibrant, even when it's easy to wish writer-director Matt Ross knew exactly what he thought of his characters and the choices they made.  It lacks the awareness of movies like Wild or Into the Wild, which provided more of an understanding of what drove its characters away from society in the first place.  Captain Fantastic doesn't have the weightiness of those movies, but it does have a weird spirit and a certain joy all its own.

Viewed Feb. 5, 2017 -- VOD

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