Be one with nature. Not with people.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Leslie, and their six children all live in the wilderness of Washington state. They’ve done so as a way of life for as long as the oldest has been around and because of this, they’ve taught their kids a lot about life. For one, they’ve learned how to survive, read, think for themselves, and take care of one another, without getting bogged down or too distracted by what’s going on in the overpopulated world outside of the woods. However, their lives all begin to change when Leslie suddenly dies and has a funeral back in her hometown, leaving Ben to bring the kids back around to not just see their real family, but the rest that the world has to offer. Of course, not everyone takes a liking to seeing Ben back around, criticizing those he hasn’t seen in years, but Ben doesn’t care – he’s too busy ensuring that his late wife gets the proper burial she deserves and so desperately wanted before her tragic death. But obviously, not everyone believes what Ben wants is the right, or better yet, proper way.
The first 20 or so minutes of Captain Fantastic are, honestly, pretty bad. Most of it takes place in the woods, with Mortensen’s character and his family all living away from the rest of society, loving every second of it, getting by and letting it be known that this is the way of life that ought to be lived. In a way, it felt like writer/director Matt Ross was saying the same thing, only through these characters; that living in an overpopulated society full of people, cars, restaurants, stores, etc., really isn’t what life should be all about. Instead, it ought to be lived vicariously through nature and appreciated for that alone. It was so nauseating to hear and watch that it had me feeling like it was time to just tune the rest of the movie out and hope that the best comes around.
But thankfully, it does.
Eventually, the story changes and all of a sudden, we’re given something of a “road movie”, in which Mortensen’s character and his family are out traveling, running into family-members that they haven’t seen in forever, or met, and trying to get used to these new surroundings. In a way, it’s a fairly more conventional movie than the one originally promised/planned, but it’s one that’s far more likable and well-done as it seems like, believe it or not, Ross has something to say and it’s that maybe living outside of society isn’t what it’s all made out to be. Perhaps, being and living around other human beings, doing things, communicating, interacting, so on, is really what’s the most enjoyable aspect about life in the first place?
Sure, it sounds so cheesy and obvious, but Ross brings this out in a very smart manner that isn’t ham-handed in the slightest. If anything, he gives us great, lovable characters and shows just exactly how they live their lives and get by, without ever trying for anything more. It sounds so simple and easy, and that’s because it is, but it still works so well that it’s hard to really get across, other than just to say, “Yeah, it’s a sweet and honest tale about life, growing up and accepting the world for what it is.”
And in it, Ross has assembled a pretty great cast, especially what with Viggo Mortensen in the lead as Ben Cash. What works so well about Mortensen here is that, underneath all the 70’s mop and beard, you can tell that there’s an earnest, lovely human being, however, he’s also a challenging figure. The movie is interested in exploring the ideals and history of this family, as well as it’s interested in just what goes on throughout this man’s head; he’s a barrel of contradictions who doesn’t always know what’s best for his kids, but at the same time, still doesn’t know what’s best for kids from other families. It’s not just entertaining to watch as Mortensen constantly plays around with what this character “thinks” is right, as opposed to what “is” right, but pretty interesting as you never quite know where he’s going to end-up next, metaphorically speaking.
Surrounding him is a pretty solid cast, though, who all measure up to his abilities. Certain talented folks like Ann Dowd, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, and Steve Zahn are all perfectly cast as the family members that he casually runs into during this trip of his and all bring out a different aspect to this character, based solely on the way that they interact with and react to him. We get a sense that they’re all loving people, trying very hard to connect with someone that they just don’t know how to connect with, mostly because they don’t actually like him. Sometimes, showing us a character and the way they are with those around them, does a better job than just telling us, which may sound obvious, but it’s a rule that seems to be lost on a lot of writers and directors today, which is why it’s great to see Ross utilizing that here.
The only downside of the movie is, unfortunately, the family of kids themselves.
Actually, that’s wrong. All of the kids in the cast are fine, but there’s one who seems like he doesn’t quite measure-up as well and that’s George McKay as the oldest, Bo. McKay is fine and does what he can, but unfortunately, his American-accent is just awful. You can tell that he’s doing one and because this character has a lot of yelling/freak-out moments, it’s not hard to hear it even more and get distracted. Also, not to mention that the character’s subplot can be a little silly at times; the fish-out-of-water scenario is a fun bit, but the idea that this character is casually looking into colleges on the sly and trying to make something of his genius brain, not only feels ridiculous, but a lot like a ripped portion of Shameless. Either way, it doesn’t quite work and because it does take up a bulk of the flick, it can’t help but keep Captain Fantastic away from being great.
Still, it’s a very good movie nonetheless so yeah, see it. Please. It’ll make you laugh, happy and possibly, even cry.
Consensus: Heartfelt, sweet, funny, and well-acted, Captain Fantastic takes what could have been a very annoying plot, turns it on its head and makes something exciting and lovely out of it.
8.5 / 10