‘Captain Fantastic’ had a storming festival season earlier this year, winning awards left, right and centre, but as with most indie films, it had a fairly limited release here in the UK. This is a huge shame for two reasons. Firstly, it didn’t get the commercial attention it so rightly deserved, and secondly, a high majority of the film-going public never managed to see it. ‘Captain Fantastic’ is not only a great film, it is absolutely one of the best films 2016 has to offer.
The film follows Ben (Mortensen) and his six children – Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja, and Nai – who live their life away from society in a North American forest. When disaster strikes the family as their mother passes away, Ben is reluctantly forced to re-assimilate his family back into society. They lived a sheltered life up until this point, away from all forms of contact with the outside world. Everything the children know (and they know a lot!) comes from reading huge amounts of literature. They have their routines, they have their roles in their day to day lives, and they adhere to them. In a cinema market populated by films about massively dysfunctional families, it’s a relief to say that The Fantastics (they are never given a surname, so I’m sticking with The Fantastics) are completely and entirely functional. They’re as functional as a cinema family can be. Relatively speaking, of course.
Where this film shines is with The Fantastics themselves. They are all characters that are as unique and confident in themselves as their names suggest. As you adapt yourself to the tone of the film (it is a little strange to begin with), you grow to learn who they all are individually. They all, to some extent, fill in your stereotypical family roles (the brainy one (Bodevan), the rebellious one (Rellian), the curious one (Nai)) but the six young actors they found for these roles are so effortlessly endearing, and able to give their characters their own personal touches. In an interview, I remember Matt Ross saying he often let The Fantastics improvise their own conversations as their characters; Ross instilled a great level of trust with his young, inexperienced actors and managed to draw some genuinely great performances from them.
As they travel down to New Mexico for their mother’s funeral, in their beautifully named bus, Steve, you have the film’s best scenes, ranging from funny to exciting to downright heart-breaking. The Fantastics are so unique in their ways that Ben has no qualms about swearing in front of his children and about speaking bluntly and honestly to them. This is wonderfully portrayed in a scene were the youngest, Nai, asks what sexual intercourse is and doesn’t receive your typical “birds and the bees” answer from Ben. Later, this scene gets one of my favourite joke pay offs I can remember seeing in a film, as Nai receives a gift for Noam Chomsky Day. You read that correctly, Noam Chomsky Day. This is the kind of film we’re working with. It’s weird, it’s odd, it’s off the wall, but it is frequently moving, and occasionally hilarious.
Of course, given a major plot device is the death of their mother, things soon take a turn away from the funny and heart-warming to the moving and sad. As they stay with their relatives having not seen them for around 10 years, there are culture clashes galore and it throws into question what Ben has been doing to his children while keeping them locked away from the outside world for so long. The culture clashes are often painful to watch; we know full well what to do in such situations, but these children do not. You form such a connection with these characters and embrace their quirks to such a degree that when placed in the real world, you as a viewer get the same culture shock that they do. Matt Ross has created an elegant combination of a family drama and a coming-of-age film for quite literally every character in the film. It’s a brilliantly written, clever script that knows when to be funny, when to be sad, when to be clever, and when to be painfully honest with its characters and indeed with us. It all boils down to the painful process of letting go.
I honestly cannot recommend this film enough. If you have seen ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and are as big a fan of it as I am, you must see ‘Captain Fantastic’. The performances are brilliant from everyone, Mortensen once again convinces me that he is one of the finest actors around today, and several stars are born in the young cast playing the Fantastic children (Charlie Shotwell’s Nai is a particular stand-out). ‘Captain Fantastic’ is truly fantastic, and I mean fantastic in every sense of the word.
Directed by: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samatha Isler, Annalise Basso, Kathyrn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd