Some impressive performances and a bright, affecting premise save Captain Fantastic from being a by-the-numbers indie quirk-trip.

American indie films have, over the last couple of decades, created something of an identifiable stereotype. I am talking not of American Independent cinema per say, but that specific niche of popular, off-beat road films that seem to champion individualism but operate mainly through formula. When people say ‘Indie films’, they generally mean Alexander Payne, not Cassavetes. Seth MacFarlane animation American Dad once dedicated a whole episode (“Independent Movie”) to the burgeoning sub-genre’s deconstruction, trope by trope.

Indeed, even among the most critically and commercially recognised indie films, the essential similarities are evident. Little Miss Sunshine, The Descendants, Nebraska are three prominent examples. Dysfunctional relatives travel cross-country, physical journey mirroring inner growth. The tones are generally interchangeable, the destinations are generally symbolic MacGuffins. They even boast similar soundtracks. All of which is to say: there is an uncomfortable predictability within the modern American road movie – one which Captain Fantastic does little to eschew.

a film smart enough to concern itself with the future over the unalterable past

The film, directed by Matt Ross, sees Viggo Mortensen star as Ben Cash, the idealistic patriarch of a family who live in complete isolation. He and his six children hunt in the wild for their food, undertake a rigorous daily exercise regimen, and self-educate with a book collection that would put many libraries to shame. (There are easy but joyful laughs to be had in hearing an 8 year old child eloquently discuss Noam Chomsky.) When the children’s mother commits suicide, having been hospitalised for severe bipolar disorder, the family of free-thinking outsiders is forced to confront normal society as they travel to New Mexico for the funeral.

The tone of the film, as the plot outline would suggest, oscillates between comedy, naval gazing drama, and family-based tearjerker. The darker elements of the script, particularly the mother’s mental illness and suicide, are handled with sincerity and sensitivity, while being just about light enough to keep the film’s overall tone uplifting. Captain Fantastic is above all a film smart enough to concern itself with the future, the children’s future, over the unalterable past.

The children on the whole are very good, particularly the youngest ones; to give kids a voice beyond their years is often a recipe for unbearable know-it-all-ism, but here their perspicacity only delights. It is, however, Mortensen who really shines. Recognisable to many as The Lord of the Rings’ Aragorn, the Danish-American actor gives a magnetic, complex performance as a driven, compassionate thinker whose idealism is stared down by the increasingly apparent need for pragmatism. Mortensen succeeds whether in emotional, patriarchal scenes with his children, or in more prickly confrontations opposite combative adults. Of the various personalities the family meets along their journey the standouts are probably Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, who provide an excellently funny ‘family dinner’ scene.

There is little too much of an episodic feel to Captain Fantastic; in many ways it progresses like a series of comic vignettes. Many of these are truly enjoyable: pretending to be born-again Christians when confronted by a cop’s car, the robbery of a supermarket, celebrating ‘Noam Chomsky Day’ as a kind of Christmas-equivalent. Towards the end, however, the funny scenes become fewer and farther between. The film could be greatly improved by a more merciless editor and the impetus to conclude.

Taken as a whole, however, the film’s enthusiasms are so well-intentioned that its message can’t help but be infectious. In this age where anti-intellectualism presides, it is uncommonly spiriting to see a major release so unabashedly proud of education and self-improvement. The fatal, significant shame, however, is that for all the characters’ rhetoric about individualism, Captain Fantastic never manages to escape what is now predictable ‘indie movie’ convention.

Louis Chilton @LouisChilton


Image: Bleecker Street 2016

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