Review: Captain Fantastic
While the untraditional family narrative is not new, it is generally fun and interesting when it pops up. Quirky characters doing quirky things and usually driving home some heartfelt message. This film finds spiritual roots in Little Miss Sunshine—another film with a strange family that winds up on a trip and must band together to learn a lesson. Here, however, the strangeness is mostly self-imposed, at least on the part of the father, who is played beautifully by Viggo Mortensen.
The Cash family is strange. They keep to themselves for the most part, surviving in seclusion while studying left wing politics and philosophy. They hone their survivalist skills as if they are preparing for impending doom. When we meet them, there is no mother and the children range in age from pre-teen to young adult. Each is being fashioned into their father's ideal of a complete person through rituals like "Noam Chomsky Day." This all changes when we learn the fate of their mother.
Leslie Cash, their mother, had been hospitalized with manic depression and has just committed suicide. When Ben Cash (played by Viggo Mortensen) finds out that his father-in-law (played by Frank Langella) intends to hold a traditional funeral for his daughter against her wishes, he and the children decide to attempt to disrupt the funeral. What follows is a journey that is both heartwarming and hilarious at times, but thoughtful throughout.
Viggo Mortensen does great work here—there is little denying that. He is transformed throughout most of the movie, before finally getting the ‘chop off the hair’ scene that is usually reserved for female characters. But the film would not work nearly as well without the performances of the children, who must straddle an unusual line between child and adult. They bring both a fun energy to the film as well as certain sobering realities about parenting. It is in their confrontation with the real world that you learn so much about their father and his thoughts and motivations.
The most beautiful aspect of the film is the way in which is trusts the audience to understand the mother's character without her being there. Her imprint is on her husband and each of the children in a way that is thoughtful and delicate given the sensitivity that comes with discussing mental illness.
In the end, the film tackles a few very challenging themes with good-natured humor and a certain timeless irreverence. Belief, mental health, conformity—they are all given thoughtful consideration in what could have otherwise devolved into an empty spitball comedy with little to say about the world. That it doesn’t is a testament to the gravity the cast brings to events that could have easily become cartoonish.
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