By Jason Abdow
I had absolutely no expectations for “Captain Fantastic” when I walked into it on the last day of the Provincetown International Film Festival. After a weekend of disturbing, disgusting, and brutally gritty films I was just hoping this movie would be a lighter counter to that. I was happy to not only was a treated to the most enjoyable film of the festival, but I also got one of the best films of 2016.
The story follows Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children who he has meticulously raised in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. His children are experts at hunting, crafting, and reciting works from Noam Chomsky. Despite feeling comfortable in their little self-created utopia, tragedy strikes, forcing them to take a road trip down to New Mexico.
The first section of this movie, which builds the world these children were brought up in, is very engaging. You get a sense of the children’s daily routines, which feels more like boot camp mixed with rigorous reading and learning, and you understand how they became the social awkward intellects they come across as. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine also utilizes this opportunity to showcase the natural beauty of all the rivers and mountains in the Pacific Northwest.
Once the family start their road trip, the film’s heart really begins to show. Mortensen shines in his role as the unorthodox patriarch of this family, who I saw as a caring, family man who just wanted the best for his children. Even when you keep telling yourself that his parenting methods are causing great harm to his children’s social skills, you still secretly root for him because you can tell that he thinks he is doing the right thing. As for the children themselves, a couple of them are underdeveloped but for the most part they all have their moments to shine. The oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) was probably my favorite, as he struggles with deciding whether or not he should follow his father’s teachings or move on with his life and go to college.
Writer and director Matt Ross uses “Captain Fantastic” as a way to effortlessly make statements on American culture, especially in relation to how Americans are brought up. A scene where Ben brings his children to the house of Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn’s characters really shows the difference between traditional children and Ben’s. We see his children scared at the sight of violent video games and unaware of common brands like Nike and Adidas. We also see that they are incredibly knowledgeable in areas of United States history and government, asking the question which is more important.
The film’s conclusion is an interesting one that in any other movie could be seen as very disturbing and while not spoiling anything, I will say this movie had the kind of tone that was able to sell this ending perfectly and leave everything off on a perfect note. The third act did begin to drag a little but besides for that I really did love this movie. “Captain Fantastic” was nuanced in how it delivered its messages and kept me thinking for days after I saw it.