Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and occasional chaste nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.22.16
Cannes winners can be obtuse, maddeningly weird and deadly dull; this is, after all, the film festival that bestowed a Palme d’Or upon 2011’s execrable Tree of Life.
On the other hand, other entries are quirky, imaginative and unexpectedly endearing, as is the case with Captain Fantastic, which took this year’s Un Certain Regard Directing Prize and was nominated for the overall Un Certain Regard Award.
Matt Ross is best known as a busy television actor with ongoing roles in eccentric shows such as American Horror Story and Silicon Valley; he occasionally moonlights as a filmmaker. His big-screen feature debut — 2012’s 28 Hotel Rooms — didn’t amount to much, but Captain Fantastic is guaranteed to change his career. Ross’ sensitively calculated script is matched by his delicate direction; he’s also blessed with an ensemble cast that rises to this quite unusual occasion.
I never cease to be amazed, having spent so much time studying our century-old film medium, by the continuing emergence of fresh stories told in captivating ways. “Captain Fantastic” is unconventional and challenging, to be sure; but it’s also poignant, shrewdly perceptive and a subtly critical statement of our times. That’s a lot of subtext for an idiosyncratic little indie, but Ross pulls it off.
Mostly because, at its core, this also is a story of the love and loyalty that bonds a family: something everybody can relate to.
Our introduction to Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children is unexpected, to say the least: all seven of them mud-smeared, in order to blend into forest foliage while stalking a deer. It’s a bloody rite of passage for eldest son Bo (George MacKay), who brings down the creature with a knife. Ross doesn’t shy from the gore.
Neither do any of Bo’s siblings, down to youngsters Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), who revel equally in this feral ritual. The carcass is taken home, skinned and dressed by 15-year-old twins Vespyr and Kielyr (Annalise Basso and Samantha Isler). Everybody washes up and tackles assigned chores, later assembling for rigorous calisthenics and a grueling run through the woods.
Later, after night has fallen, they gather around a crackling fire, quietly reading weighty books on science (Jared Diamond) and philosophy (Noam Chomsky), or challenging fiction such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Somehow sensing when his children have had enough, Ben teases a quiet song on his guitar; Bo joins him. Twelve-year-old Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) displays a rebellious streak by inserting an aggressive drum beat; there’s a breathless moment, as his siblings wait to see how their father will handle this intrusion, but Ben smiles and modifies his own playing to follow the beat. The others, relieved, laugh and dance as the family makes music together.