Kanopy Review: Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen, Star of Captain Fantastic

One of my favorite actors working today is Viggo Mortensen, who has starred in movies ranging from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to numerous independent films that you may or may not have heard of. One that probably falls in the latter is ‘Captain Fanteastic,’ currently available on Kanopy through the University of Memphis Libraries. Mortenson plays Ben Cash (this last name is a nice tongue-in-cheek touch), father of six children, who along with his wife Leslie (largely unseen in the film) decide to raise their family in the Washington wilderness, with limited contact to the outside world. Early on, the viewer learns that Leslie has been hospitalized with severe bipolar disorder, leaving Ben and the children on their own in the rugged landscape.

These early scenes of the family’s structure and day to day life are some of the most poignant of the movie. Ben essentially home schools the children in every conceivable way, using the surrounding forest and mountains to teach them survival skills and keep them in peak physical health. Beyond this, he also assigns them books that most American youth would run screaming from: two of the books spotted while the family collectively sits reading by the of a campfire are ‘Blood, Germs, and Steel’ by Jared Diamond and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Dostoevsky, tomes that most people don’t even pick up in college (I haven’t read either, but they are on my TBR pile, I swear!).

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The family, however, is shaken from their idyllic lifestyle by the news of Leslie’s suicide. Ben reluctantly loads the children onto their large green school bus to head to Leslie’s funeral and attempt to convince her father that she had willingly rejected traditional beliefs on life and death. Discussing much more would spoil the entire plot, but this is truly a film that defies genre limitations. The concepts here are ones that are relevant to what a number of parents and children contemplate in our modern world.  It is a family drama that includes aspects of survival and road trip movies.

Ben clearly loathes the materialistic mecca which he believes most of America to be. His children are more highly educated than some people with advanced degrees. However, the best scenes of the final act of Captain Fantastic deal with the kids, as they are exposed to the outside world, forming their own thoughts on whether this is enough. The oldest, Bodevan, secretly applies to a number of Ivy League schools, and is accepted to them all. He eventually fights with his father concerning a simple fact: what is the point of all the knowledge he possesses if he has no clue how to relate to other people on the most basic levels? Another one of the sons, Rellian, wonders why the family celebrates the intellectual Noam Chomsky instead of being “normal” and observing Christmas. Thus, the movie is at its best when it is examining different ideas on who knows what is best, particularly for the children. What exactly is the best way to live? And is there a middle ground that can be found without wanting to rip each other to shreds?

Who will like this one: The strength of ‘Captain Fantastic’ lies in the fantastic performances from the ensemble cast. Mortensen is at the top of his game, and there is not a weak link among the actors portraying the Cash children. It will also appeal to those who enjoy a good culture clash, as there are no real bad guys in the movie, though I find myself rooting for Ben and his lifestyle, despite his epic stubbornness.

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