Sweet, gripping and aesthetically pleasing, “28 Hotel Rooms” (2012) director Matt Ross has truly created something worth watching in his second feature film, “Captain Fantastic”. The film has enjoyed largely positive feedback since its US release in July, but now filmgoers on this side of the Atlantic can finally see what all the fuss is about.
The very concept of the film is one which will appeal to the hearts and minds of so many of us who want to go back to our roots and escape the rat-race that is modern civilization. The piece follows a father, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who has opted to raise his family of six in the forests of America’s Pacific Northwest. The children follow a physically and mentally challenging regime of exercise and education, while also being given the freedom to be exactly who they are and to express their beliefs and feelings freely. When the family are forced to leave their safe haven and venture out into society, Ben finds his approach to parenting is frowned upon by the majority of the people he encounters – even those who are supposed to be supportive.
When we see the family enter a more standard society, we are treated to alternative view of “normal” western upbringings. It becomes painfully obvious how far everyday life in the US (and by extension similar western countries) is from the idyllic lifestyle laid out at the start of the film. Nowhere is this contrast more startling than when Ben’s family are introduced to his sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her two sons (Elijah Stevenson and Teddy Van Ee). The sister, Harper (Hahn) suggests that Ben’s family cannot possibly be receiving the education they need in the woods. Ben responds by questioning his youngest daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Harper’s teenage sons on the Bill of Rights, ultimately ‘proving’ that his children are getting a much better, more effective education than the children learning through a mainstream education.
Although complaints may be made about the characterisation of the father, who may often come across as pompous and self-centred, it can easily be argued that a great deal of strength lies in this film’s characterisation. Yes, the father’s character is deeply flawed, but that’s sort of the point. Furthermore, even if you cannot find it in your heart to forgive Mortensen’s performance, it must be said that the performances of the younger actors are fantastic.
Bo (George MacKay) stands as a shining example of all of the pros and cons of their survivalist lifestyle. He is incredibly athletic, can hunt with nothing more than a knife, is a loving brother and a highly educated young man, having been accepted into a variety of prestigious universities. He is also incredibly socially awkward, and completely oblivious to modern social protocol, having only been socialised with his parents and younger siblings. The eldest child, he is our example of the outcome of such a social experiment: brilliant, powerful, unhappy. Bo’s flaws add a touch of realism to the story, showing that a life lived separately from standardised society will have its consequences.
Our second, less shining example of the potential outcome of this lifestyle comes in the form of Ben’s wife Leslie (Trin Miller), the mother of all six of his children. Leslie suffered from issues with mental illness, which ultimately resulted in her suicide. Her father, Jack (Frank Langella), disapproves of the lifestyle they chose for the family and blames her death on Ben’s influence. Ben is adamant that they chose their lifestyle together, but questions slowly begin to arise over whether or not she actually wanted to live in the woods, and whether their lifestyle had a positive or negative effect on her mental health.
Ultimately, the film’s plot strikes a perfect balance of comedy, drama and social critique. We are entertained by the family’s exploits and touched by the children’s innocence, yet we find ourselves wondering what implications the film’s themes have on our own lives. Are we slaves to capitalism, as Ben may lead us to believe? Are all of the children around us as uneducated and gormless as Jackson and Justin (Ben’s teenage nephews)? Is there something to be said about the way of life illustrated at the beginning of the film?
When it comes down to it, “Captain Fantastic” offers a balanced, interesting and entertaining discussion of family values, and about the difference between what children may want and what they really need. The film seems to suggest that we have to choose between raising children who are fully educated and completely self aware, or raising children who are perhaps less intelligent but who can more easily integrate into wider society. We need to ask ourselves which option will allow the children to be truly happy, and challenge ourselves to strike the happiest medium possible.
On a purely aesthetic level, this film is absolutely beautiful. The scenes depicting the family’s forest home are truly stunning, and the set design here is perfect. Frankly, given the opportunity, I think the vast majority of us would move into the family home without a moment’s thought – though I daresay the Internet connection and phone signal would be awful.
Chances are, this isn’t the best film that will be released this year. All the same, it is certainly one of the better films of 2016 and a welcome break from the long period of films released to disappointing critical reception.
Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn
Running Time: 118 minutes