I hadn’t even heard of Captain Fantastic until Viggo Mortensen grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance here, but when it popped up on Amazon Prime this month and a couple of you recommended it, I figured I’d give it a shot, even though the reviews I’d seen before watching it were all pretty lukewarm. It’s really not a good movie at all, thanks to a mawkish, preachy script, saved in parts by some good performances and a lot of very funny quips that still aren’t enough to justify this movie’s one-sided existence. (It’s also available on iTunes.)
Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six who lives in an isolated cabin in the Pacific Northwest with his family, where he and his wife have home-schooled the kids and raised them off the grid, rearing a bunch of child prodigies with distinctly anti-capitalist, anti-religious, socially progressive views. When their mom, who is absent in the early parts of the film because she’s been hospitalized, kills herself, the brood end up taking a road trip south to New Mexico to attend her funeral, fight with her father, and engage in the obvious comedy of having the kids see American consumer culture for the first time.
It’s a cliche-ridden mess as a script, as a story, and in most of the things the family does outside of itself, which is to say that the only parts of the script that work are the interactions between Ned and his kids, or among the kids themselves. With six of them, there isn’t enough screen time to develop their individual characters, so five of them are cut from the same cloth and seem to represent different stages of development, with the oldest, Bo, the one who gets some depth, although the two sisters, Kielyr and Vespyr, have their moments. The actors playing the children are all quite good, and I would bet this film will one day be a novelty for the fact that a bunch of good actors were all in this as kids, but they don’t have a ton to work with.
The hippie material here provides a few good laughs, although some of them were easy targets, and the film overplays the humorous aspects of having a five-year-old spout Marxist ideology or Bo indignantly inform his father than he’s no longer a Trotskyist but a Maoist. But once the film puts them in direct contact with mainstream kids and adults, like Ben’s sister (played by Kathryn Hahn, who shows how great she can be even in a serious role) and her family, the film just goes for low-hanging fruit, and never recovers the energy it showed in spurts earlier in the film.
The ending is where the wheels truly come off the bus, pun intended; the story jumps too fast, spares us a lot of explanation we need for decisions the characters (mostly the kids) make, and gives us way too much of a feel-good ending for a setup that should give us something very ambiguous. This is a movie about parenting, about the choices we make as parents, about what it might be like to be there every minute of the day with your kids, and how we might raise children to be better humans, better aware of their effects on the environment and on others, more concerned about injustice and less concerned about material wealth. But parenting is hard, and raising kids with values like those, so far out of the mainstream of our culture, is extremely difficult, so giving us a pat ending where everything’s just fine – and, by the way, who’s paying for Bo’s choice at the film’s end – is inauthentic.
Mortensen’s very good in the film, but I would have given Joel Edgerton the nomination for Loving or even Michael Shannon for Midnight Special before him. Heck, even Rolf Lassgård, without whom A Man Called Ove would have failed completely as a film, was better.