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.
Details come slowly, as they would for an unlikely guest to this enclave. Ben and his wife Leslie abandoned conventional life years earlier, choosing to live off the grid and raise their family in a gorgeous woodsy region of the Pacific Northwest. Zaja and Nai were born in this leafy paradise; they know no other life. The four older children have embraced it, taking the cue from their parents.
They hunt, build, weave and otherwise fabricate daily necessities, earning a modest income by selling craftwork at a nearby trading post, and using that money for supplies. Occasional trips to this nearest tiny community are made in a bus nicknamed Steve.
But Leslie is absent from this picture, and has been for months. Too much time has passed, and the children finally ask questions. Ben, candid to a fault, finally — reluctantly — explains that their mother has long suffered from mental illness; her lengthy hospital stay has been an effort to get bipolar demons under control.
Mere days later, when the next trading visit affords Ben a phone call, he gets the devastating news that Leslie, unable to endure her despair, has taken her own life.
The profound loss is bad enough; the children grieve with their father after he shares this awful news. But it precipitates another crisis that Ben discovers, after reading his wife’s will: Having become a Buddhist, she explicitly insists on being cremated after dying. But this flies in the face of the “proper” Christian burial planned by her wealthy, conservative parents, Jack (Frank Langella) and Abigail (Ann Dowd).
Jack is a molten cauldron of rage, blaming Ben for having “ruined” his only child so many years earlier, by turning her into some sort of pacifist hippie freak. (Absolutely untrue, as Ben’s despondent dreams and memories reveal; he and Leslie adored each other, and their unconventional lifestyle was a mutual decision.) Jack threatens legal action if Ben even shows up for the funeral, but the children will have none of that; Operation “Rescue Mom” becomes an obligatory mission.
And that means entering civilization, with a vengeance, via a road trip to the obscenely aristocratic Albuquerque community where Jack and Abigail live. Which, as a matter of course, gives the already didactic Ben endless opportunities to express his contempt for what so-called “civilized” society has become.
It’s a fascinating exercise, as we essentially view ourselves through the eyes of bewildered visitors who seem equally alien to everybody else. Ross plays it two ways: He milks gentle humor from the disconnect, particularly in terms of the reactions of Zaja and Nai, the youngest and most guileless.
“Are all these people sick?” Zaja wonders aloud, looking at the staff and customers at a bank, where Ben has stopped to withdraw some funds. “They’re all so fat.”
(And, indeed, they are.)
But Ross’ tone also can be serious. The most telling intellectual and spiritual gulf comes when Ben’s family spends one night with his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) and their two sons (Elijah Stevenson and Teddy Van Ee, as Justin and Jackson). Harper can’t begin to control her boys, who are spoiled rotten, and yet she makes the mistake of challenging Ben’s home-schooling methods. He responds by asking the boys a few simple questions about the U.S. Bill of Rights, and then putting the same questions to Zaja.
Home-school advocates will cheer the results of this spontaneous competition, which should give all of us pause.
On the other hand, many of Ben’s rage-against-the-machine tirades become unduly harsh, and we wince; it may be amusing when Zaja and Nai giggle while parroting slogans such as “Stick it to the man,” but we begin to wonder just what sort of impact such indoctrination is having on these six young minds. We may admire Ben for his principles, but he’s no saint; we may respect the rigor with which he schools and hardens his children, but his unwavering regimen — as when Rellian breaks one wrist as the family climbs a sheer rock face — starts to feel like child abuse.
Ben really is no different than the equally inflexible Jack; they simply argue from opposite ends of the spectrum. More tellingly, as a mortified Bo learns — after spending an idyllic trailer park afternoon and evening with a young woman (Erin Moriarty), who likes but is puzzled by him — the totality of Ben’s guidance has given his children no adaptive social skills. They’re freaks, given to off-putting outbursts just like their father.
This film draws its emotional power from the way in which Ross builds up to this crisis, and then deals with it.
Mortensen is completely persuasive in this eccentric, richly nuanced role: equally credible as a shrill, slogan-spouting nonconformist; and as a thoughtful, deeply devoted parent who believes that he’s doing what’s best for his children. And, when the weight of counter-argument becomes too great to ignore, Mortensen conveys Ben’s agony of indecision.
The kids are terrific. MacKay’s Bo gets the lion’s share of screen time, as his coming of age involves far more than killing a deer. He has grown old enough to realize that choices and decisions must be made; he’s also mature enough to perceive — and be humiliated by — his social failings. MacKay carries close counsel; his strongest assets are his eyes, which convey a wealth of emotions.
Rellian is at the in-between age least able to process the raging emotions of grief and loss resulting from his mother’s death; Hamilton makes him a lost and vulnerable soul no longer willing to accept his father’s “rules” just because. It’s reasonable that at least one of these children would be defiant; Hamilton makes Rellian’s pain and confusion palpable.
Isler and Basso are perky, feisty proto-earth mothers, always determined to prove they’re just as strong and smart as the boys. Crooks and Shotwell are adorable. Langella, initially intimidating for the degree of Jack’s toxic hostility, eventually reveals subtler shades of compassion. The man may be condescending and insufferably self-righteous, with a reflexive tendency to win through cold legal connections, but he’s not a one-note monster.
The earthy, uplifting and organic score and songs come from composer Alex Somers, a Baltimore-born musician and visual artist who now lives in Reykjavík, Iceland. He’s best known for his work with the post-rock band Sigur Rós, and as one-half of the duo Jónsi & Alex. Somers’ music works beautifully with this film’s atmospheric narrative.
Captain Fantastic isn’t for all tastes; I suspect red-staters will roll their eyes with disgust over Ross’ not-very-subtle, hippy-dippy suggestion that we all should be more tolerant of alternative lifestyles. In fairness, Ross’ smugness — as voiced by Ben — is somewhat difficult to tolerate at times.
But this is a fairy tale, and all fairy tales have messages, and provide food for thought. The lessons here aren’t that difficult to swallow, particularly when presented as a droll, thoughtful and poignant three-course meal.