Captain Fantastic

2016 – USA

Director: Matt Ross

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Kathryn Hahn, Frank Langella

Words: R. Topham

Let’s not sugarcoat this – Captain Fantastic sounds like a coming-of-age comic book hero who’s still growing into his suit and hasn’t had his first kiss yet. Alas, Viggo Mortensen is no caped crusader in his latest drama, but he is an anti-establishment hero in this wonderfully weird gem that’s equal parts heartbreaking and silly.

Mortensen’s titular Captain is Ben Cash, who is raising his six children with wife Leslie in the idyllic tranquility of the forest. The kids have oddball names like Bodevan and Kielyr, can speak five languages, are all mad about Noam Chomsky, celebrating the philosopher’s birthday as if he were a member of the family, and were brought up reading the classics of Middlemarch around a campfire while their dad plays an acoustic guitar softly in the background. They’re kind of an extended, feral version of the Tenenbaums with an esoteric understanding of everything from quantum physics to the birds and the bees. Their rigorous fitness regime and survival training also means they have the cardiovascular systems of elite athletes, a credential Ben considers a remarkable accomplishment for his nonconformist brood.

When the family are confronted with tragedy, and their only option is to leave the solace of their rural paradise and enter into the freakish realm of the ‘real world’, they are torn apart and brought closer at the same time. Mortensen executes the charisma of a compassionate yet concerned father who is also his children’s educator, confidante and friend, with particular dexterity for sticking it to the man. Kudos are also due to director Matt Ross for his flair for diplomacy in dealing with sensitive issues such as parental responsibility and mental health, which couldn’t be further from his role as Luis Carruthers in American Psycho.

Yes, Captain Fantastic is another emotional rollercoaster rooted in the philosophy of virtue, but its defining feature is in the multifaceted nature of child rearing, and the Cash children’s abhorrence of modern materialism. The eldest of the Cash clan, Bodevan, experiences possibly the most painfully cringey romantic endeavour of any film this century, but he continues to respect the decency of life nonetheless. And depending on your standpoint, the influence of Ben’s aversion to the toxicity of mainstream society on the meticulous control of his children’s every move is either a heroic defiance or a familial dictatorship.