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  • Articles by Sonali

    Film review: Captain Fantastic

    The Autumn season of films is off to a good start with the release of Captain Fantastic. Despite the film’s title it isn’t about a comic book superhero. Captain Fantastic is actually a quirky independent film, about a family living ‘off the grid’ in America’s Pacific West, written and directed by Matt Ross. The film premiered at the 2016 Sundance Festival and has caused quite a stir since due to its bold storyline and controversial main character Ben Cash, played by Danish-US actor Viggo Mortensen.

    Cash is an unconventional father to 6 children of various ages, bringing them up in the mountains, outside the system. The children’s home-schooling by Cash, includes a gruelling exercise regime. They acquire a healthy cynicism for mainstream American society and organised religion in the US. Cash, ever the free-thinker, celebrates Noam Chomsky Day with his children.

    We see the family hunting together for food in the lush, green forest, eventually catching a wide-eyed deer in what is a rather gory scene. In the evenings they sit around a campfire, reading Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ or ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot. There are no computers, TV or internet. Afterwards, they all take part in a sing song, which is one of the film’s highlights.

    The children’s mother has left the home in the mountains due to illness. Her death triggers a journey from the wilderness into the real world, a road trip to their grandparent’s house in New Mexico to attend her funeral. They travel on a rickety old bus decked out with an old fashioned cassette player, an extensive library of books and racks of retro clothing through a flat landscape flanked by mountains.

    All this fits in nicely with the indie theme but it seems very contrived, more like set dressing. Even the idea of the family hunting for food doesn’t stack up very well.  The kids wear hand me downs (Nai wears animal skins) but their shiny, coiffed hair suggests that they are accustomed to home comforts. Some critics have described the plot as a ‘Sundance fantasy’.

    Viggo Mortensen portrays Cash with conviction: more of an antihero, he often seems a bit authoritarian. The children aren’t allowed to order American fast food (burgers and pancakes) during a visit to a roadside diner. In Cash's opinion, ‘there’s no food on the menu’.

    The representation of grown-ups is skewed in Cash's favour. He appears enlightened and liberal compared to his wife’s relatives who are more traditional, and concerned about his children's upbringing. He comes across quite smug as a result. The film's second half is weighed down a bit when he clashes with the children's grandfather Jack played by Frank Langella.

    But, for all the flaws, ‘Captain Fantastic’ has something particular to say about the state of American society, childhood and nurturing.

    The Cash children are a bright, charming set. These young actors give nuanced and unaffected performances, headed by George McKay who plays the eldest son Bodovan. They add a warmth and dynamism to the story. They also convey a sense of otherness, as if they’re trapped in a time warp from a more radical era several decades ago. The film focuses on each child in turn, and they also work together well as an ensemble; although Nai (Charlie Shotwell) and Saja (Shree Crooks) steal the limelight in many scenes.

    When the Cash family visit their more worldly cousins in New Mexico, we see the stark juxtaposition of two worlds during a conversation across the dinner table. Nike is the Greek Goddess of Victory says little Nai, since he’s never heard of the Sports shoe brand before. Saja is confused by the idea of ready-made food from the Supermarket.

    These gaps in their knowledge reveal the children’s shortcomings, in their tentative grasp of the real world. Here Ben Cash falls short of teaching his children practical life skills. His children begin to challenge his idealistic views. His capability as a parent is also questioned. Cash has a brief epiphany later on, but the plot moves back into fantasy territory at the end.

    Nevertheless Matt Ross’s compelling and original family drama holds up, despite a few corny moments. There is an anti-consumerist message countered by a view of the real world. The film presents a rare view of a different way of life, living against the prevailing tide. It manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

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