In the world of independent filmmaking, the dramedy genre is a road well tread. With the near saturation of the genre, clichés and staples quickly emerge; these include “one-note” quirky comedic characters, pretentious dialogue, obscure alternative music, and much more.
Upon hearing of the Sundance Film Festival screening selection of Captain Fantastic, I presumed it be just another by the numbers indie dramedy. However, due to a strong script and stellar performances across the board, I am pleased to report that this Captain Fantastic in fact rises far about the others.
The story focuses on a family of seven, led by father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and mother Leslie (Trin Miller), living deep within the forest of the Pacific Northwest. The film’s opening scene depicts the eldest child, Bodevan (George MacKay), hunting a deer with nothing but camouflage and a small blade, and upon completion being inaugurated as a man by Ben.
After the hunt the rest of the family slowly emerges, and we meet Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell). Through this peculiar introduction, we quickly learn that this is not your typical American family.
The eccentricities only increase as we continue to see more of the family’s off-the-grid, minimalist lifestyle amongst the wilderness. During the day they train rigorously in hand-to-hand combat, mountain climbing, and hunting, while in the evening they read books covering topics from classic literature all the way to quantum entanglement. They finish off the night by playing music fireside well into the darkness. The family showcases physical, intellectual, and artistic perfection.
If the story thus far seems too far a stretch, know that writer/director Matt Ross grew up in similar circumstances, and borrows personal experiences for the creation of the film. Alternative parenting methods have been explored thoroughly over the years, and for anyone who has considered these approaches, or our limits as human beings in general, Captain Fantastic is a total dream.
The only thing sullying the family’s secluded paradise is the absence of Leslie, who has been apart from the family for the past several months due to mental illness. When Ben goes to town to check in on his wife’s condition, he learns she has ended her internal battles by taking her own life. This sets the family on a road trip to Leslie’s funeral and modern-day American civilization.
The children, who have never truly seen the “real world”, are immediately put into conflict with all the aspects of Western culture which most deem normal, including organized religion, video games, soda (which Ben quickly dismisses as “poison water”), and society as a whole. It is the children’s inability to adapt to the world which puts Ben’s methods as a father into question. Although the children can be considered as a form of super-humans, they have no idea how to interact with other kids their own age.
Each of the young actors are given an opportunity to excel in their roles, a prospect which they all marvelously seize, with Isler and MacKay particularly standing out. A scene in which Bodevan meets Claire (Erin Moriarty), a girl from a trailer park the family briefly stays at during their journey, is one of the high points of the film. When the two share their first kiss, Bodevan’s instinctive reaction is to ask for her hand in marriage.
The scene is brimming with both hilarity and heart, something which can easily be said for the rest of the film. Ross can be held accountable for the film far exceeding the indie film clichés by not basing Captain Fantastic around quirks and clearly constructed plot points, but rather finding humour and emotion grounded in both reality and truth.
It is a terrific script, and one that Viggo Mortensen (best known for playing Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) fully sinks his teeth into. Mortensen is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the film. Captain Fantastic reaches an emotional apex when Ben is forced to consider that perhaps his radical parenting methods are doing more harm than good; the weight of the father’s deliberation is brilliantly rendered by Mortensen. His portrayal of Ben’s complicated emotional conflict is executed impeccably, and his performance brings both great humour and powerful heart-break. Mortensen possesses all the quintessential qualities of a leading man.
It’s complete joy getting to see the talented young cast being led by Mortensen as they are exposed to the real world. Although it may be the idiosyncratic premise which draws in an audience, it’s the family values such as communication, honesty, and compassion of which we can all relate that makes Captain Fantastic truly great. The film raises many questions around parenting and today’s society, and, over the course, the film arrives at a conclusion offering just the right amount of answers. It’s damn near perfect.