Parenting is one of life’s experiences that no-one can put their finger on how to do ‘the right way’, yet ironically most parents think their way is right.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), never outwardly vocalises a disdain with the current world and it’s appropriateness to raise children in, however, his choice to dwell with his six children in the woods of the Washington wilderness away from society sets the scene to suggest that he does have such issues.
The very first introduction to his family shows them hunting as eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) breaks the silent approach to attack a deer before Ben declares him a man with a flourish of the animal’s blood to the boy’s face. In retrospect, this scene feels tongue-in-cheek as soon after we’re swiftly transported to their homely dwellings where Ben, Bo, teenagers Kielyr, Vespyr and Rellian, and the little’uns Zaja and Nai prepare dinner from the hunt in an unexpectedly domestic style.
Here in the woods, living the ideal life as it seems, Ben teaches the children classical works of philosophy and of science beyond their years of understanding to regular folk. He raises them on his own as Leslie, his wife and their mother, was hospitalised due to her bipolar condition where she eventually commits suicide.
We learn that Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella) blames Ben for worsening her condition through their committed life away from society and refuses to honour her will with a Buddhist ceremony and opt for a traditional Christian burial. This takes the family on a slightly off-kilter mission reminiscent of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine as they go to attend, or rather hijack, their mother’s funeral.
The film is both equal parts comedy and drama and balances the genre devices perfectly for a nuanced, impactful, and thought-provoking story. The charm of the film is through this isolated family’s interactions with the world as we know it. Although these children are awfully intelligent and Ben teaches them with a straight-forward honesty, their innocence still remains as they discover things they never read about in a book.
Aside from this, the audacity and shocks of some situations and how Ben leads the children to deal with it, rather than perhaps showing them how to fit in, is absurd in some instances. This makes for a polarising character in Ben, as some may find his actions reckless and irresponsible and others totally inspiring and refreshing.
The heart in this film is huge, through not only the both dry and whimsical humour but also the sentiment and tough issues it addresses. The idea of mental illness provides a context and texture to the relationship of the mother and her family, which we don’t get to see play out on screen. Instead, we see what she meant to each of the characters through their ways of dealing with her death.
This is dealt with perfectly through the performances of each of the actors particularly McKay and Nicholas Hamilton as Relian. His anger and blame toward Ben evokes pity and heartache, and the calmness of Ben dealing with this and all the other children is admirable.
There’s lots of talent to watch here among the children, and Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn’s few scenes together as aunt and uncle provide a contrasting but equally emotive and authentic display.
Captain Fantastic is a completely original story with inspired comedy and a stellar cast to match. A refreshing break from blockbuster superheroes and spies, this incredibly moving film is absorbing and told with care and love and therefore deserves to be seen by many.