Captain Fantastic (2016)

110 Captain Fantastic

Subversive films are often camouflaged behind genre or movie titles. Many are promoted as action thrillers, dramas and even comedy but in reality carry dystopian themes about the breakdown of modern civilisation. Some recent examples of subversive films are High Rise (2016), Money Monster (2015) and 99 Holmes (2015). The film Captain Fantastic (2016) is also subversion in camouflage, with a clever title that evokes a mythical super-hero but in reality is about someone who trains his offspring military-style to prepare for the moral decay of modern civilisation.

Enlightened counter-culturalist Matt Ross (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife have raised six children in a utopian paradise buried deep in the Washington forests. His wife has been absent for months, hospitalised with mental illness, while Matt continues to home-school and train the kids in survival, combat and hunting. They are well-versed in philosophy, political theory and literature, are all musical and know how to live with nature. Matt sneers at religion so Christmas is ignored and they celebrate Noam Chomsky Day as rebellion against Christian society.

Matt is a firm, loving father and expects the children to live by his offbeat moral code, but they know nothing of how town-folk live or of the technological world outside. They expect the unfiltered truth about everything so when the eight year-old asks about sexual intercourse the factual reply would shock modern parents. None has ever seen a video game, they have no idea of what Coke tastes like and ogle in amazement at the size of people eating in McDonalds. When they head to the city for their mother’s funeral the encounter with the ‘real world’ is both hilarious and confronting.

On some levels, this story is so fanciful that it could be regarded as simply an eccentric family comedy. When we hear the eight-year old analyse the American Bill of Rights, or the ten-year old quote from Karl Marx, or see all six kids engaged in elite athlete training including extreme rock-climbing in dangerous weather, it is clear we are not meant to take the whole story seriously. At another level however, this is one of the most refreshing, heart-warming and thought-provoking films in quite a while. It is especially endearing in depicting the many small moments where natural honesty confronts civilised artifice. Mortensen has a dominant presence, the acting and personalities of the six children are delightful, and the wilderness photography is beautiful. But believability is so over-stretched that what could have been a brilliant film settles instead for being a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable fable about conformity and difference.

3 half stars

Director: Matt Ross

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, George Mackay, Samantha Isler