Captain Fantastic is a lighthearted story of family, values, and independence. Or at least, it wants to be. It’s success varies wildly from scene to scene. It follows a very Little Miss Sunshine formula – a supportive yet dysfunctional family on a road trip in a kooky vehicle. Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is a newly widowed father of six, who lives in the wilderness in North America’s Pacific North West with his brood. He trains them, pushing them hard both physically and mentally, with military-like precision. It’s a humming paradise of ideology, which the children accept (albeit to varying extents).
It is a very comfortable film to watch, if you’re left wing. The fascism of capitalism is damned, and Noam Chomsky is celebrated like Santa Claus. The children are all strong actors, carrying their whip smart dogmatic characters through dialogue that could be cloyingly unfunny in the wrong hands. Yet there is a point, probably about the same time as Bodevan tricks a cop into thinking the family are fringe dwelling Christians, that the audience realises that agreeing with the politics used doesn’t make indoctrination less creepy and potentially immoral. The film does its best to address this without losing its gentle heart to skepticism, as the kids rebel and conform to their authoritarian father as the narrative journey’s closer to their mother’s funeral; a place their father has been explicitly banned from. The political commentary here is general rather than pointed, operating as a backdrop to a quirky comedy.
Narratively Captain Fantastic rips along until shortly after its denouement. Up until this point, the languid scene composition was foiled by the tight time frame and the story’s pacing, creating a sense of infinite space and utter lack of time at once. This contrast drops away as soon as the initial five day journey is over. Instead, the story bounces from moment to moment, trying to cover off all of its bases before the film ends, without any real explanation of what had previously been motivating conflicts (do the children manage to maintain a relationship with their Grandparents? What about Bodevan’s university fees?). Likewise, writer and director Matt Ross uses the death of the matriarch of the Cash family as a starting plot point, rather than a mechanism for any actual reflection on family and motherhood (she has already been in hospital, away from the children, for over three months by the time the film starts).
The soundtrack and sound design by Alex Somers, is a perfect fit for the film’s stunning cinematography. The eerie, musical and almost discordant tones echo the beauty of the landscapes, particularly in the opening sequences as the Cash family move through the forests they call home, and the traditional road-movie long shots of the van hurtling down empty highways. Mortensen is unsurprisingly ‘fantastic’ in his portrayal of Cash, his gruffness betrayed by small facial expressions, his stoicism undermined by his body language. The costume design is cutesy and at times distracting – quintessential hippy looks are dialed up to eleven and multiplied by children’s clothing – but for the most part this just adds to the lighthearted atmosphere of the film.
Captain Fantastic is in limited release from September 8th.