Captain Fantastic Plot Summary:
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raises his family isolated in the wilderness, teaching them everything from survival skills to literature & history. When his wife (Trin Miller) dies as a result of a mental illness, Ben and his kids return to civilized society to properly honor their mother, but her disgruntled father (Frank Langella) wants Ben nowhere near the funeral due to his unorthodox lifestyle.
Look, we all wish we could live a peaceful existence in the woods away from the pressures and hypocrisy of normal society to reflect on the deeper meaning of life, but it’s just not realistic, alright! Ben Cash in Captain Fantastic tries to dissuade us of that notion. To be fair though, Ben’s life in the woods is anything but quiet. He trains his kids like a drill sergeant, albeit a mellow one. What this movie does well is it doesn’t pick a side between Ben’s philosophy and a normal existence. In an age where technology drains our souls (a topic that is heavily addressed in the film), it would have been easy to side with Ben. The pros and cons of both methods are presented. Much like a philosophy major though, the film has a string of clever and extraordinary well written moments, but the big picture of it all falls short.
The story is weak. Ben and his band of children attempt to stop their mother’s funeral to fulfill her true wishes of being cremated. That’s the plot. Eh. The real meat is the battle between Ben’s free spirit way of life against the stuffy, wealthy father-in-law. He’s not a villain though. This isn’t like a G-Rated family film where the rich evil guy schemes against the little man. You absolutely understand where he’s coming from. Unfortunately, the movie is sloppy. There are brilliant debates, but it meanders to a predictable ending that isn’t earned. While I enjoyed individual moments, I ultimately felt unfulfilled.
While story falls short, the characters are strong. Viggo Mortensen carries this bad boy on his shoulders from beginning to end. The dialogue is sharp. Everything about Ben is specificity, in particular his teaching method – a true quality over quantity guy. All his lines are perfectly crafted to reflect this. The best moments are when he grills his kids on something they’ve read and asks them to describe it. He’s not giving out participation ribbons, forcing them to always make a cogent point. No generalizations. He’s always a compelling figure that endears you to his way of thinking.
The other characters are hit or miss. Jack has six kids, and the movie decides three of them should have personalities. George MacKay plays the eldest, Bo, the true scholar and most potential bound of the bunch. You know early on he’s a genius, and has benefited greatly from his father’s teachings. It’s watching his social interactions that are fascinating. You have one of the younger kids, Zaja (Shree Crooks), who’s usually the cute comic relief, always with a pithy comeback. There’s the obligatory dissenter, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), who constantly calls BS on his father’s methodology. He’s a good character, but his conflicts with Ben are completely undercooked. The other three kids are completely interchangeable, including the two older daughters, who are merely plot devices. There’s another son (Charlie Shotwell) who barely says anything aside from one scene.
There are other characters like Frank Langella, and Ben’s sister and brother-in-law, played by Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn respectively, who serve their purpose. This leads to the best sequence of the movie. Hahn verbally abuses Ben on his parenting, but he completely turns the table on her kids, in a scene that is frightening because of how believable it is. The movie is worth seeing because of this one moment.
Captain Fantastic is a very entertaining, thought provoking film. If this had more time to refine a better narrative, it could have been one of the best movies of the year. A lot of good ideas, but so/so execution. Solid movie, but it’s just not…fantastic. Yup. I did it.
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.