Opening August 18, 2016
Directed by: Matt Ross
Writing credits: Matt Ross
Principal actors: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Kathryn Hahn, Trin Miller
Nestled in the Pacific Northwest forest is the Cash compound. Totally self-sufficient, totally off-the-grid. The family’s enterprises involve growing and preserving food, hunting game, a strict physical fitness regime, and chores. Home schooling topics are extensive, varied, challenging. Ben (Mortensen) and his six children—seven to eighteen-years-old—personify teamwork, communicate honestly, play instruments, and spend evenings reading or singing. Until Leslie’s (Miller) illness forces them into the outside world. Ben’s link to all that, his sister (Hahn), tries to help; his in-laws (Frank Langella, Ann Dowd) hold him accountable. Headstrong, Ben holds his principles dear, albeit compromise is unequivocally imperative. The confused siblings attempt adjusting to countless new sights and sounds. Increasingly, Bo (MacKay) is itching to follow hormonal yearnings, while Rellian (Hamilton) simply wants to experience the mundane. A mishap sets off Ben’s doubts, but his strong-willed brood unanimously settles on their course.
Writer-director Matt Ross commingles humor with unique, powerful drama to deliver a sensitive, funny and poignant film. In tandem the key crew amplifies surroundings: Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, Joseph Krings’ editing, Courtney Hoffman’s costume design, and Frank Gaeta’s sound design. Production designer Russell Barnes’ sets are extraordinary: a classic American Bluebird school bus is the Cash’s home-on-wheels, and the based-in-reality Cash compound-cum-tourist destination is outside Seattle, Washington. Jeanne McCarthy’s casting is brilliant. Mortensen—was a given—is outstanding, becoming the character. Vigo contributed personal items (props), and (design) ideas. Finding Ben’s youngsters was a comprehensive search for McCarthy and Ross. For authenticity, they attended wilderness camp: seven-year-old Shotwell as the tipi nudist Nia; Crooks as the taxidermy, death absorbed Zaja, nine; Australian Hamilton as the questioning, quarrelsome Rellian, twelve; Basso/ Vespyr and Isler/ Kielyr as the strong, competent, nurturing twins, fifteen, learned Esperanto; British MacKay as the caught, yearning and respectful eldest, Bodevan.
It will be hard not to relate to Captain Fantastic at a personal level. Keep an open mind – appreciate its merit, creativity, subtleties, and rich contextual layers. Ross’ personal experiences contributed to the story: exploring parents choices for their children. Mortensen adds, “ Hopefully it will make audiences question their assumptions.” Plan to see this film. 120 minutes ( )
In 2015, in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, Ben Cash (played by the captivating Mortensen) is raising his six kids as far ‘off-the-grid’ as it is possible to get in present-day America. He’s got his children on a rigorous regime of physical training, teaching them survival skills, and providing them with a steady diet of great works of literature and political theory. Instead of Christmas, the family celebrates Noam Chomsky Day. They practice yoga, play music together, speak multiple languages, and hunt for their food. These kids – each with his or her own unique name made up by Ben and his wife Leslie (Miller) – are better read than most adults, thoughtful, confident, and as physically fit as professional athletes. But they are also almost completely isolated from the ‘real’ world, and have very little understanding of social interactions outside their family unit.
Ben’s idyllic world is shattered by the death of his wife, and he takes the kids – against his better judgment – on a 1,500-mile road trip to attend her funeral. He’s been warned by his father-in-law Jack (Langella) not to attend Leslie’s funeral because Jack blames Ben for the death of his daughter. Jack is a wealthy, entitled bully, a symbol of the system Ben and Leslie have been retreating from, and he finds fault with every choice Ben has made. Jack’s threats to take the kids away from Ben – and better-intended criticism from Ben’s sister Harper (Hahn), who fears for the kids’ safety – force Ben to come to terms with whether he could have done more to help his wife handle her mental illness and, ultimately, whether he is the best role model for his kids.
Mortensen is an intelligent actor, and it shows in his extraordinary portrayal of Ben, a devoted parent who believes that he’s opening up his children to the world’s possibilities. Some of the choices Ben makes seem reckless and endanger his kids, although it’s always clear that he loves them and sees his lifestyle as offering them every possible freedom. Mortensen is affecting in his embodiment of a man who may have gone too far, whose (occasionally) self-righteous attitude is slowly chipped away by pain. Captain Fantastic is a powerful film that beautifully captures the complicated mixture of love, hope, suffering, doubt, and humor that binds one remarkable family together, and has left an indelible impression on this viewer.
Sometimes you watch a movie which you feel you could discuss afterwards for hours. Captain Fantastic is one of those movies because it raises so many questions and brings out so many conflicting emotions.
Ben Cash (Mortensen) and his wife Leslie (Miller) have left modern America behind to raise their children in the magnificent wilderness of Washington State. We first meet their six children when they are hunting deer in the forest. Bo (Mackay), the eldest child, undergoes a primitive, stone-age ritual which his dad says marks his progression from childhood to manhood. Your heart sinks and you wonder what you have let yourself in for, but then the family returns to a Swiss-Family-Robinson-like compound, and the children read and discuss classic novels and show a knowledge of world politics which should be well above their level of maturation. You see them from a different angle.
Where is mum, you’re asking yourself at this point. Ben and the children clearly adore her but to see her means that they must travel out of the world which has been carefully created for them. They pile into Steve, their converted school bus, travel through America’s contrasting combination of vast, natural beauty and ugly urban sprawl and arrive at their grandparents’ grandiose mansion in Albuquerque. During their journey they encounter and sometimes clash with the contradictions of life in modern America.
Ben is a mixture of new age hippie, university professor, loving husband and caring father but most of all he is the epitome of a Victorian patriarch. As a result of their isolated upbringing the children have, for example, an understanding of The Bill of Rights, know how to kill and skin wild animals and can climb sheer rock faces, yet they haven’t developed the skills needed for social interaction with others. Can Ben begin to understand that the life which and Leslie has planned for their children, idyllic and well-intentioned as it seemed to them, means that they are ill equipped for modern life?
The lynch pin of this movie is Ben and he is beautifully acted by Viggo Mortensen. His acting skills are matched by George Mackay who plays Bo, and both are well supported by the rest of the cast. The pace of the movie is gentle and reflective and, considering where it was filmed, the cinematography couldn’t be anything but spectacular. Director and screenwriter Matt Ross has made such an absorbing movie that you will easily forgive the occasional bouts of silliness displayed in it.