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Review: Captain Fantastic

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Hardly this year you’ll be able to find a film that’s more original and timely than Captain Fantastic. On the surface you’d think you’re about to watch an average quirky dramedy about yet another dysfunctional family, carefully designed to lure in audiences and juries at Sundance. But since the very beginning, as its subdued and intriguing opening sequence unfolds on screen, you’ll immediately realise this is actually a poignant and satirical take on parenting and the modern world.

Many of you would recognise writer/director Matt Ross from his acting work in a ton of films like American Psycho or The Aviator and especially his iconic roles on television series such as HBO’s Big Love and currently HBO’s Silicon Valley. But Ross isn’t new to working behind the camera as besides several shorts he directed his underrated feature debut, 28 Hotel Rooms, in 2012. With Captain Fantastic, however, he reaches another level of maturity as a storyteller, crafting a thought-provoking reflection on the state of our society without ever sparing hilarious and genuine moments of pure comedic bliss.

Although he’s not playing a Marvel superhero, Viggo Mortensen is out of this world as the titular character, delivering an Oscar-worthy performance and a milestone within an already illustrious career. The film’s title couldn’t be a more inspired choice to capture the effervescent personality of this character and his alternative views on parenting and life, but it also feels like a nod to the heroic role children usually associate to their fathers, at least until teenage rebellion ensues.

Ben Cash (Mortensen) is the father to a tribe of six children, spanning from Bo (the ever wonderful George MacKay) who’s on the cusp of young adulthood, through teen girls Vespyr (Annalise Basso) and Kielyr (Samantha Isler) all the way to pre-teen Rellian (impressive Aussie newcomer Nicholas Hamilton) and little cubs Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell). As you can tell just from these kids’ peculiar names, nothing is ordinary in the Cash family and their lifestyle speaks for itself as the manifesto of what they stand for.

Ben and his wife in fact have raised their family in the woodlands up in the Pacific Northwest, immersed in nature, living off the land and staying away from anything remotely materialistic or connected to society. The film opens with a rite of passage, following Bo as he makes his first deer kill to celebrate his transition to adulthood. In expertly edited montages Ross shows us the rest of the Cash family’s routines – from early morning exercise to working the land, from building a fire and rock-climbing to being home-schooled by dad and playing music around campfires.

This idyllic, utopian life soon risks being jeopardised by an accident, which forces the clan back to the real world, confronting the families they left behind that obviously disapprove of their life choices. Most importantly though, the change of scenery affects the kids in various ways as they realise how despite being strong and capable of surviving mother nature, they lack the set of knowledge and skills when it comes to surviving the world outside their bubble. When his family begins to collapse, Ben can’t help but question himself as a parent. Even if he has selflessly given up any personal ambition or career path to dedicate himself to raising his children the way he believes to be right, he has also prevented them from getting acquainted with a world that one way or another they’ll have to deal with one day.

Mortensen does a superb job at portraying this strong, obstinate but ultimately sensitive patriarch who loves his family more than anything. He never falls into caricature and makes Ben extremely believable through whatever extremes he reaches in order to stick with his principles. But he masterfully switches to his vulnerable side when confronted with the fact he might’ve made a mistake by completely cutting his children off from the world. The young cast is absolute perfection and that’s of course a testament to Matt Ross’ direction as well.

The filmmaker, who deservedly won the Best Director award in the Uncertain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival last May, has done an amazing job at crafting a script where each character is well rounded and has his/her moment to shine. Despite being a large ensemble, all of the kids have their own idiosyncrasies that make for both extremely hilarious moments and meaningful dramatic ones. It’s a story about finding balance in life and Matt Ross is astonishing at finding that stylistic balance between comedy and drama. He paces the film wisely, never falling into the trap of becoming a cheese-fest, and yet he’s able to stir our emotional entrails many a time.

Upon its Sundance world premiere back in January, many critics likened the film to the similarly toned Little Miss Sunshine, especially when the Cash family hits the road on a caravan. I love that film and can see the connection, however, I believe Captain Fantastic to be its own unique thing and Matt Ross to have introduced himself as a new powerful voice in American independent cinema.

5-out-of-5

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