“Last night, mom killed herself. She finally did it. Your mother is dead”. There’s something about the matter-of-factly way in which Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash communicates the death of his wife to his children, aged between eight and eighteen, which perfectly sums up the odd nature of Matt Ross’ hippy-centric Captain Fantastic. But more than that, the sequence, which is one of the film’s most moving moments, beautifully sums up the thematic conflict which lies at the story’s centre – the pitfalls of parenthood and the forever ongoing quest to discover the right way to raise your children.
Opening with an ocean of green trees, we meet Cash and his five children living at the heart of a huge forest. There they spend their day’s hunting, exercising, reading books – the more complex kind such as Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov – and playing music by the campfire with all the conviction of a wailing, almost-feral, quasi-cult. Cash and his late wife believe that their children’s education in survival, politics and life is unlike any other, rightly so, and its in these opening scenes – scenes in which you can almost inhale the fresh forest air and smell the burning campfires – where Ross gets you onside with Cash and has you longing for what appears to be a simpler life.
It isn’t until Ben gets news of his wife’s suicide where we realise that things are never quite as simple as we might think. And as the Cash family begin a journey into the outside world to ensure their mother’s dying wishes are respected, the way in which Ben has raised his children is brought into question as he clashes with various family members and their way of life. In this respect, I guess you could call Captain Fantastic a civil-culture clash story in which two ways of living come smashing into one another.
Through Ross’ rich writing, his screenplay is textured with warmth and sadness and joy, his film has one of the most fascinating and quietly complex portrayals of a parent that I can remember seeing in quite some time. However much you may agree with Cash’s politics and ideals, the way in which he will always remain truthful with his children – even going so far as to tell one of his youngest children what rape is in great detail- will undoubtedly leave you debating his parenting decisions. And that’s barely scratching the surface of the central character’s questionable parental ethics. Is Cash doing his children a disservice by shielding them from the outside world? In trying to teach his children survival skills, is Cash putting their lives in jeopardy? Should a parent always be truthful with a child? Are book smarts enough to survive in the world? These are just a few of questions that Ross asks and which he doesn’t necessarily provide answers to.
Whilst the film does feel like a character study first and foremost, it’s important to mention that it’s never dull or depressing . In fact, the laugh rate here is higher than that of most conventional comedies that so often fill our multiplexes with silence. The script is full of wit and there are enough gags to leave you consistantly laughing out loud, but its the cast itself which are integral to the laughs. With any film like this, performance is key, and Viggo Mortensen gives what could quite possibly be a career-best turn. Often seen in serious roles, it’s a joy to see him let loose and have a bit of fun with the anti-consumirist, bagpipe-playing Ben Cash. But perhaps more importantly, it’s his chemistry with the younger cast which proves to be the most memorable thing about the film.
Effortlessly blending hilarious quirk and well observed human drama, Captain Fantastic is a film which I fell completely in love with. Films like it, films which you connect with so much that you feel like they were tailor made for you, come around far too often and therefore should be celebarated all the more. From its performances to its politics – “Happy Noam Chomsky Day” – and from its folky soundtrack to its beautifully understated cinematography, it’s cinema that is good for the spirit. Not only is it one of the best surprises of the year, it could just well end up being the best film of 2016. It’s a little gem that may be difficult to seek out, but is well worth the effort.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com