Monday, July 18, 2016

Captain Fantastic (***)

Written and Directed by Matt Ross


The most foolish aspect of the early-decade McConaissance (which inexplicably ended with the Academy giving him an Oscar for the vapid, polarizing Dallas Buyers Club), was that everything we were drooling over - the earthy carnality, the steely piercing eyes, the unapologetic manliness - was present in Viggo Mortenson all along. Only Mortenson was a better version; more handsome, more manly, and a more unique actor. Mortenson's run through the Aughts was a brilliantly selective and varied display of a wonderful screen actor testing the limits of his capabilities, and rising to the challenge nearly every time. The stoic heroism of his Lord of the Rings performances, contrasted by his work with Cronenberg in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, was a range unseen from most of the big-name actors at the time. We haven't seen too much of Mortenson this decade, which makes his lead role in Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic that much more exciting. Here he plays Ben Cash, a severe survivalist raising six children off-the-grid in the American wilderness. Ben is a brilliant critical thinker, in peak physical condition, who lives a demanding lifestyle with near-impossible moral standards, and he holds his children - who range in age from the teenaged Bodevan (George MacKay) to the pre-school age Nai (Charlie Shotwell) - to those same standards. Every day they have boot camp-level endurance training, and they only eat what they themselves can catch, kill and collect. Their home in the depths of the woods is secluded from civilization, but Ben still makes sure his children are educated, taking the burden of teaching them himself. They're fed a syllabus of Marx, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Jared Diamond (*shrugs*). They're bred to believe in their anti-capitalist utopia in the woods, in their intellectual superiority and their physical supremacy. Their unorthodox life is an extraordinary experiment, a testament to the effects of active parenting, with all its graces and warts on display.

Ben is smart enough to understand that there is no such thing as a real utopia, and his wonder home is no exception. Ben's wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), has been absent from their close-knit family for weeks after being institutionalized for sever bipolar disorder, not helped by the family's intense lifestyle. Their children are suspicious of their mother's absence. After all, Ben has loudly preached the uselessness of hospitals and doctors, so how can their mother possibly be getting better with one? When Ben and Bodevan take the family bus into town to collect some essentials, Ben gets in touch with his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), to check Leslie's status. She tearfully tells him that his wife has killed herself at the hospital, slitting her wrists. Ben takes the news with hardened grace, but when he tells the children, they are understandably heartbroken. His second-oldest son, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), even rages against his father and blames him for the suicide. Ben is direct with his children, pulling no punches, and never leaving a single detail out of any explanation, no matter how uncomfortable or traumatizing. Watching him so cavalierly explain Leslie's suicide to his children is the film's first and most disturbing example of this, and its also the initial moment where the audience begins to see flaws in Ben's life philosophy. Ben learns from Leslie's mother, Abigail (Ann Dowd), that she will be memorialized in a church service then buried. He also hears from Leslie's father, Jack (Frank Langella), who angrily blames Ben for the death of his daughter and threatens to have him arrested if he shows up to the funeral. Despite Jack's warnings, Ben takes Bodevan, Rellian and Nai, as well as his three daughters Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso) and Zaja (Shree Crooks) on a trip to the funeral. Boarded upon a refurbished school bus named Steve, the family of the wilderness make their first introduction with society, with fascinating results.

Matt Ross' film is a thought-provoking meditation on life philosophy and parenting ethics. Ben's extreme definition of social purity is its own form of elitism. The condescending way in which Ben and the kids treat Christians and capitalists sniffs of the kind of intellectual bullying that they claim to stand against. Ben is pumping his kids so full of knowledge, but none of them have any experience with children their own age. They've never heard a pop song, nor are their concepts of romance anywhere near normal. Captain Fantastic doesn't show us what their lives were like when Leslie was still alive (Miller's performance is relegated to flashbacks), but its nice to think that there was more of a balance. Ben is so institutionally against the basic tenants of contemporary society that he's willing to sacrifice his children's mental stability so they can be prepared for wilderness survival. Ross' script is smart, funny and compassionate. It's fully aware of the shortcomings of its protagonist, but still is able to paint Ben as the capable leader that the family needs. Judgment isn't seen much in Fantastic but when it is, it usually resides in Ben's corner. Even if Bodevan is literally incapable of talking to other kids his age, or if Nai doesn't understand that walking around naked isn't the usual social norm, isn't that a decent trade off for being able to speak out the Bill of Rights by memory at eight, or have a fully realized of concept of Marx and Trotsky at seventeen? We're given glimpses of other children. When Ben and the kids spend a night with Harper and her two sons, we're shown cell phone-obsessed teenagers who are disobedient and care for little more than their video games. Ben is raising fully-formed intellectuals, but is that really an admirable quality in a child?

The only child that seems to think anything fishy is going on is Rellion, who wishes openly that they could be like a normal family that eats diner food and celebrates Christmas (the Cashes celebrate "Noam Chomsky Day"). How Rellion has any idea what a more traditional life would be like when the much-older Bodevan seems to have no clue is a head-scratcher, but the character gives the film a much-needed pushback against Ben in the family dynamic. While Ben preaches egalitarianism, it's clear who the boss is in their family. Losing Leslie seems to have only made his reserve stronger, his will to mold the minds of his children even more hardened. As brilliant as his kids are, his age and wisdom puts him one step ahead, and whenever they choose to ask questions of his choices, he's able to worm out through philosophical loopholes that they're too young to see as deception. This is where the performance from Mortenson is so important. Ben is so earnest and yet so blind to the damage that he may cause. It's easy to dislike the pushover Hannah and the tyrannical Jack, but where Ben's logical brilliance ends, a frightening reality sits: his children are being prepared for a world that does not exist, and will then be hoisted into one that will not accept them. Ben is intelligent enough to talk his way out of most situations, but is he really the best person to raise his kids, especially with Leslie not around? This is the central question to Captain Fantastic, and the answer is never made as clear as you'd it expect to be. Matt Ross' film is such a deliberate, nuanced picture of family, grief and guilt, and such a raw, emotional display of the definition of the successful American family. The film's ending becomes a bit whimsical for my taste, and while its satisfying and sweet, it betrays the honest tone of the film's first three-quarters - as if in the end they decided to become Little Miss Sunshine - but Captain Fantastic is a truly unique film experience with a particularly American story, led by a great performance from one of our great actors.

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