Friday, August 5, 2016

Movie Review #465: "Captain Fantastic" (2016)

Movie"Captain Fantastic"
Director: Matt Ross
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
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Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is an ultra left-wing survivalist who is raising his six children in an isolated forest. They have a rigorous training schedule where they learn and participate in wilderness survival skills, and they have a heavy-loaded education where they learn about philosophy, history, in-depth sciences, and interpret novels far beyond their years. After Ben's wife dies, he is forced to take his kids back to civilization for their mom's funeral, where he will undoubtedly face criticism and confrontation from his wife's family based on the way they choose to live. His parenting skills may even be called into question regarding whether or not he is raising his kids with their own self interest in mind.

Written and directed by "Big Love" star Matt Ross, "Captain Fantastic" is a drama about family, parenting, death, life, and living outside the box. Ben, played by Viggo Mortensen, is a super far left survivalists raising his kids in a way that doesn't fall into the standard socio-normative experience. He wants his kids to think independently and push against the status quo at every possible opportunity. They live off the grid in an isolated shack in the forest of the Pacific Northwest, almost entirely cut off from "regular" society. Ben's wife, however, has spent the last few months in a hospital for treatment for her bi-polar disorder, and after she passes away, he is forced to take his kids out of isolation into the jarring reality that exists outside of their homegrown bubble. Despite all of the book smarts and survival skills they have gathered and retained over the years, Ben's six kids, eldest son Bodevan, played by George MacKay, Kielyr, played by Samantha Isler, Vespyr, played by Annalise Basso, Rellian, played by Nicholas Hamilton, Zaja, played by Shree Crooks, and Nai, played by Charlie Shotwell, are almost entirely socially inept. They are dysfunctional in a different kind of way than you or we are dysfunctional. They have no social filters and are not aware of what people in the "real world" might consider rude or unusual. They often talk about things like Noam Chomsky, Leon Trotsky, Buddhism, fascist America, the materialism and commercialism that consumes everyone but their family, big pharma being the downfall of the country keeping people sick and poor, the animals they have killed (the same ones they proudly wear on their heads as hats), why people in America's cities are so fat, etc.

After several awkward encounters along the way, the family finally makes to New Mexico in their trusty bus Steve. Upon arrival, Ben faces confrontation from not only his father and mother-in-law Jack and Abigail, played by the incomparable Frank Langella and Ann Dowd, who have flat out told Ben that if he shows up to his wife's funeral he'll be arrested, but also from his sister Harper, played by Kathryn Hahn, and her husband Dave, played by Steve Zahn, about what is truly best for the kids. Everyone is mainly concerned about their safety and their well being, but there is also a layer of whether or not what Ben is doing for/to his children is even what was wanted by his late wife at the end of her life as it seems she may have had her doubts at one point. It is a natural instinct for people to want to protect children, so this is understandable. The natural reaction within our society would attempt to impose what you might think is best for their safety on them because of their parents perceived recklessness, and this is what everyone attempts to do to Ben. "Captain Fantastic" asks many questions without rallying behind a specific answer. When you see the trailer and when his character is first introduced in the film, you expect Jack, the kid's grandfather played by Langella, to be a villain of sorts. Upon examination and as things progress, we start to really see things as they are from every perspective, not just Ben's. We admire the way Ben has chosen to raise his kids and respect his right to do so, however we also understand Jack's point of view and how he champions for the children to get social interaction beyond their family unit.

Summer 2016 has been a wonderful year for independent cinema, and "Captain Fantastic" is no exception. The acting is, to borrow a word from the title, fantastic across the board, but especially that of Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen seems to be choosy with his roles as of late, so each time we get to see him act, we savor the moments he is on screen just a little bit longer. His performance as Ben is one we will look back upon come Oscar season. There is a hardness to Ben, even in his completely open and forthcoming state of existence, and Mortensen straddles the line between the two essences perfectly. He is one of the best living actors at the moment. Frank Langella is always brilliant, and Ann Dowd plays the subtly nuanced role of Abigail perfectly. All of the child actors, most of whom are unknown, are also tremendous and sell their united-but-also-slowly-falling-apart family extraordinarily. The bottom line is, this is an engaging, thought-provoking, emotional film with elements of both humor and sadness, mixed with some moments of excitement, fun, and learning. It's worth watching for Viggo Mortensen's Oscar worthy performance alone.

My Rating: 8.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 8/10
IMDB's Rating: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 78%
Do we recommend this movie: Yes!

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