Sunday 12 February 2017

Captain Fantastic

In this year’s awards season, one film keeps creeping into the Best Actor category – and rightly so. Among all the predictable nominees (and inevitable winners) like Casey Affleck, Viggo Mortensen keeps sneaking in and securing a place in the 5 for a little film called Captain Fantastic. You might not have heard of it – its UK release was a small and quiet one. But it is truly deserving of this late buzz, and if there’s any justice in this world, Mortensen may walk away with a trophy for it yet. So…what, or who, is Captain Fantastic?

Despite a title that brings Marvel and DC Comics to mind, Captain Fantastic is one of the most real films you’ll see this year. The story centres on a family who, under the patriarchy of father Ben (Viggo Mortensen), have been living in complete isolation in the wilderness to escape the pressures of modern life. Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) had become disillusioned with capitalism and the modern lifestyle, and chose to raise their children in the forest - without technology, but instead survival skills, philosophy, fitness and self-reliance. But when tragic circumstances means the family must go on an adventure out of the forest, Ben’s parenting is met with disapproval from the modern world – and his children struggle to understand how life works in a world of technology and infrastructure.

Captain Fantastic is one of those gorgeously understated films that doesn’t have any stand-out moments to focus on in this review, nor does it have a particularly stand-out performance. Viggo Mortensen is utterly mesmerising as the conflicted but loving father – the titular Captain Fantastic – but it would be an insult to focus too deeply on him and not raise awareness of the rest of the cast’s stunning work. All of the children – George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell are sublime. The chemistry between them, and Mortensen, is always believable and creates a feeling of realism that gives this film a very natural vibe. They’re all so good you forget you’re watching a cast of actors; as far as you’re concerned, this is a real family. They meet several people on their travels – Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Missi Pyle and Ann Dowd, to name a few. But outside of the legendary Frank Langella, none of them leave as lasting an impression as the family do.

The film’s slow-burning narrative is charming and surprisingly engrossing – although, on the surface, nothing really happens. But despite being about nothing, it is in fact about everything. It is about life, and people, and the world we live in today. It’s an inspiring story that one cannot put into words; it must be experienced to be understood. Directed and written by Silicon Valley’s Matt Ross, who stated his approach to this film was wondering what would happen if a parent was “completely present” in a child’s life, without the restraints of modern technology and social lives. He also states there is some autobiographical content in there – “I had lived, as a child, in Northern California and Oregon in a bunch of alternative-living communities”. If it was anything like this film, I’d be all for it.

The modern world is a mess, and you can understand why some people would want to escape it. Captain Fantastic does an excellent job of conveying those ideas, but also accurately showing the modern world’s response to this sort of choice. Captain Fantastic isn’t biased one way or the other, in fact it is quite an interesting discussion film. What is parenting? What makes one parent better than another? Whose choice is it how you raise your own children? 

This is a stunning and unforgettable film, and a deep story about life. Do not miss it. Captain Fantastic lives up to its title, and deserves every accolade it has won and has been nominated for. Hopefully, it’ll win a few before the award season is over.


Sam Love

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