Captain Fantastic (2016)

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“Last night, Mommy killed herself. She finally did it.”

Acting on behalf of the wise words from Tolkien, “not all those who wander are lost,” Captain Fantastic places absolute and unquestioned faith in its free-wheeling stance. Cut-off from a degraded culture and corporate fascism, honoring mind and body by exercising the willpower of both. Denying the veracity in this type of lifestyle is a test most naysayers are doomed to fail. Maybe that’s the entire point of this perceptive, contentious, at times strained film. The story has strong ideas backed up by an even stronger conviction in its wholly unique belief system, yet with varied end results. It doesn’t exactly stick the landing, but what a daring attempt to take flight this is. Captain Fantastic has a refreshing sense of ambition.

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Hidden in the hills of the Washington wilderness, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) plays father and teacher and drill sergeant to his troupe of six children. He’s alone for the time being, with his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) being treated for a mental illness and all. Her condition is more serious than previously believed though, and the clan comes to eventually learn that she has unexpectedly offed herself. A mother, wife, daughter, and friend now gone. The event becomes the film’s catalyst for movement; they want to honor her wishes, no matter Grandpa Jack’s (Frank Langella) intention to bury his daughter traditionally. So after we’re fully immersed into their offbeat and backwoods lifestyle brand, Captain Fantastic becomes a roadtrip film busting through the seams of convention. It facilitates challenge and accepts the back and forth discourse that comes with it.

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Matt Ross serves as the writer and director on this movie, and it’s clear as day that the man has an affinity for this crew of castaways. They’re all grounded in a sense of self, just barely out of touch with reality, each person with a tiny little facet to make their own and bounce off the rest of the family. Mortensen gives the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from him, so commanding and diligent with an air of relaxation behind his sails. He’s as naturally gifted an actor as they come. And while Ross directs all of the youngsters to atypically strong roles, the most challenging work is placed on the shoulders of the eldest Bo (George MacKay). MacKay opens up to the camera with intelligence and naivete, a nearly grown man still standing on the outskirts of socially defined manhood. In one scene, as he looks through acceptance letters to every ivy league college you can imagine, Bo stands there wide-eyed, a caboose passing by in the background. MacKay sells the disbelief while Ross expertly imbues the picture with the transportation of train tracks. The film has problems late, but instances like this one don’t allow it to fold beneath the complexity of the issues it raises.

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Captain Fantastic begins in a state of duality – those in the know versus those out of mind – before allowing trace amounts of moral compromise to elevate the film to a rightful sense of plurality, the once narrow-minded embracing the selectively attuned heads of others. As we follow Ben and his children, all of them as intellectually adept as they are socially inept, we’re confronted with the possibility that being too smart can be too much for your own good. Can you be educated to the point that you can’t properly interact with the world? If that’s the case, should we allow a proper discourse to foster further understanding? Ross’ film raises these points and asks these questions without the capability of completely answering them. Regardless, it’s hard to ignore the power of the film’s originality, having a sequence late in the proceedings that moves you to genuine familial emotion from on high and down low. Captain Fantastic doesn’t stay true to such loving imagery and allows for too much oddity, but at least it confronts the definition of normalcy. If such a word can or should exist is any entirely different story.

“Aim for the heart.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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