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Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Captain Fantastic (2016)

Directed by: Matt Ross

Premise: A father raises his six children in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, teaching them to live off the land and rigorously training their minds and bodies. When the mother dies, the family goes on a road trip and the children encounter American civilization for the first time.

What Works: Captain Fantastic is a thoughtful tale that simultaneously works as a road trip movie, a coming of age story, and a family drama. It also manages to be a piece of social satire and all of those pieces fit together and enhance one another. The film plays very much like an immigrant narrative. This unusual family lives such an isolated existence that their first encounter with American culture is a lot like that of someone moving to America from a developing country. And just like a lot of immigrant stories, Captain Fantastic allows viewers who are within the dominant culture to see it with new eyes. The children have been raised as survivalists living in a cabin in the middle of the forest and they’ve been home schooled by their parents whose curriculum was shaped by ultra-left wing ideology. Upon their mother’s death, the family travels into the cities and suburbs and the children get their first taste of American life. Captain Fantastic presents the father’s unusual approach to child rearing in a way that requires the audience to think about it. At first the movie appears to be on his side and there are certainly merits to what he’s done; the children have the bodies of superior athletes and they are better educated than most college freshmen. But things become more complex. The oldest son, played by George McKay, has no idea how to talk to women and the other children cannot relate to other kids their age. The encounter with mainstream culture brings out the underlying tensions in the family which leads to a more interesting question: are these kids really smart or have they just learned to parrot the opinions of their father? For all his talk of freedom from the slavery of industrialized society, the father tries to maintain an ideological hold on his children and the life they’ve made. Behind all of this occurs the death of the mother and the grieving process. The way in which the filmmakers of Captain Fantastic weave these different pieces together is very impressive and makes the film a sophisticated portrait of American culture and family life.  

What Doesn’t: The story of Captain Fantastic does not adhere to a typical dramatic structure. This is a road trip movie and as is typical in that kind of story the narrative is episodic. The children encounter the outside world for the first time while coping with their mother’s death and the father does what he can to keep his family within the all-natural bubble in which he’s raised them. However, Captain Fantastic brews a conflict between Viggo Mortensen’s character and his deceased wife’s father, played by Frank Langella. The father and his in-law have severe philosophical differences about life and how to raise the children, with the older man holding Mortensen’s character responsible for the death of his daughter. Although it is set up early in the film, the conflict doesn’t actually occur until very late and it’s resolved too easily. It’s here that Captain Fantastic runs into some significant logical and credibility problems. The grandfather warns his widowed son-in-law to stay away from the funeral, under the threat of taking the children away, and carries out a traditional funeral service in contravention of his deceased daughter’s last will and testament. The movie gives Langella’s character the upper hand but that doesn’t make sense.  As a father and a widower, Mortensen’s character has legal rights to the children and to his wife’s funeral proceedings. This part of the story is overly manufactured in order to increase the drama and get to a resolution.

Bottom Line: Despite some logical flaws, Captain Fantastic is a smart story of a family trying to live a genuinely countercultural life. The movie is able to dramatize that experience while illuminating our culture’s shortcomings and this family drama presents us with some interesting and complicated questions about how we live our lives.  

Episode: #606 (August 7, 2016)