As Matt Ross’s touching sophomore film “Captain Fantastic” makes its rounds through the festival circuit it continues to garner more and more positive buzz. And “Captain Fantastic” lives up to its name as Ross tells the story of a family living to the beat of their own drum and drags you across each end of the spectrum of human emotion with a dramatized and idealistic portrayal of what it means to be a good parent.
In the opening scene, Bodevan (George MacKay), the eldest son of the six children of the Cash family, slays a deer and then takes a bite of its heart as part of a coming-of-age ritual that sets the engaging pace for the film. This world set deep in the forest of the Pacific Northwest feels so separate from the world we know, we instantly believe living in the wilderness is the only way to live. The Cashs' daily rituals include hunting, martial arts, and knife training all necessary for surviving in the isolated land. Their self-sustaining lifestyle is mixed with bits of singing and dancing around fires and homeschooling with topics including Marxist theory and critically analyzing Lolita.
Their life is turned upside down with the news of the suicide of the matriarch, Leslie Cash (Trin Miller), who had been hospitalized by her parents to treat her bipolar disorder. It is not until Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), the patriarch of the family, visits the local town and receives the news on his outdated cell phone that we see how removed his family is from civilization. Ben returns to his yurt-like home and shares the news with his kids with a frankness and maturity usually reserved for adults.
The death of Leslie and her upcoming funeral act as forced motivations for Ben to expose his kids from what he has protected them their entire life. The disconnect in socialization, however, is apparent through the kids’ interactions with strangers, and it is especially noticeable any time that Bodevan interacts with the opposite sex. On their road trip to New Mexico for Leslie Cash’s funeral, Ben’s parenting strategies and lifestyle are questioned as the kids attempt to reintegrate into society. Throughout the film the characters, and the audience, struggle to understand and accept different parenting styles and question what it means to be a family.
Ross’s background in acting shows in his directorial style as he is able to elicit captivating performances from even his youngest cast. Charlie Shotwell and Shree Crooks, Nai and Zaja respectively, steal the show as the littlest of the Cash clan. Their characters, wise beyond their years while maintaining their youthful curiosity, add a much needed balance to Ben’s often arrogant and controlling persona. Frankly, each actor shines in their roles gaining extreme levels of empathy from the audience. Nicholas Hamilton’s performance as the middle child Rellian provokes audible sneers and tears as he rejects his father’s lifestyle in favor of his conservative grandfather Jack’s (Frank Langella), and Mortesen’s counter as Ben, the charismatic and caring yet pushy and impatient father, creates an equally heartbreaking and heartwarming dynamic. Also, George MacKay does an incredible job revealing Bodevan’s internal struggle between his devotion for his father and his desire to attend university and assimilate with his peers.
Hidden underneath the main theme of the film, Ross subtly inserts commentary on different social, economic, and political issues including economic inequality, obesity, religion, and the American education system. All mentions of these issues feel organic and add depth and insight into the characters, their actions, and their dialogue. Each situation is carefully chosen and each conversation is profoundly significant allowing the characters and the scenes to develop naturally.
The ethereal score feels as if it were taken directly from the Jonsí discography. The transcendental quality of the music matches perfectly with the aesthetics of a film filled with rays of soft sunlight, striking shots of nature, and hippie décor. Each frame on the road feels postcard worthy and leaves you ready for adventure. With production design capturing the same adventurous spirit of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the highly romanticized outdoor experiences strongly parallel the idealistic counter-culture lifestyle the Cash’s live.
During its premier in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard category, two hours of smiling, sniffling, and laughing were followed by a well deserved, boisterous standing ovation that lasted through the credits. Ross somehow succeeds in creating a feel good family drama that avoids standard road trip clichés and leaves you with a feeling of elation.