I remain unsure and baffled about how “Captain Fantastic” is about, even though I was well aware of what it is about. I guess it is supposed to be a whimsical comedy drama about a quirky alternative family lifestyle, but I often found its occasional shifts in tone and mood too distracting and disorienting to engage me. At first, it looks like a comic cross between “The Mosquito Coast” (1986) and Wes Anderson movies, and then it becomes your average family road movie, and then it tries to be as serious as “Running on Empty” (1988), and then it even comes to be reminiscent of Japanese film “Departures” (2008) around the finale. In other words, this is something I come across from time to time: a typically oddball Sundance film which is merely whimsical for the sake of whimsy.
The first 30 minutes of the movie, which will surely determine your inclination for it, is alternatively amusing and uncomfortable as introducing us to the unorthodox family lifestyle of Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his children. Not long after their first child Bodevan (George MacKay) was born, Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) moved to a remote mountainous forest area in the Pacific Northwest region, and they were happy together with their seven children for several years until Leslie had to leave their place due to her worsening mental illness.
While they have not had any formal school education, the children have learned not only survival skills but also many other various things under their unusual but smart parents’ guidance. The opening sequence shows Bodevan doing a ritual forest hunt for his approaching manhood, and then we see them going through their daily physical training routines under Ben’s strict but caring supervision. At one point, they climb up along a stiff rocky cliff together, and you may cringe when one of them happens to face a perilous situation and then has to take care of it for himself just because his father says so.
During evening, they read books or play music, and they are quite knowledgeable as expected. Due to their extensive knowledge on emergency medical treatments, all of them often speak like walking human anatomy textbooks, so we have a line like “If you hit the rocks below you, you’ll die from blunt force trauma. Or internal bleeding from massive bone fracturing. Or splenic flexure of the large intestine.” They also can speak several different foreign languages including French, German, and Esperanto, and, not so surprisingly, they all are heavily influenced by their parent’s radical liberal philosophy (“Power to the people!” – “Stick it to the man!”).
Despite his wife’s absence, life seems to continue as usual for Ben and his children. He is pretty frank to his children about their mother’s bipolar disorder problem (“Mom does not have enough of the neurotransmitter serotonin to conduct electrical signals in her brain.”), and the children mostly keep their spirit high as occupying themselves with tasks given to them respectively. In case of Zaja (Shree Crooks), she reads her book while wearing a gas mask for no apparent reason, and that is one of many eccentric touches tacked onto the film just for our amusement.
And then their little cozy world is shaken by a sudden sad news. Ben hears from his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) that Leslie killed herself at a hospital where she was admitted, and he is also notified that her funeral is going to be held in her hometown in New Mexico as wanted by her parents. While devastated by this news as much as his children, Ben is reluctant to go there because he knows well that he will not be welcomed by her father Jack (Frank Langella), but he eventually decides to attend the funeral along with his children.
As Ben and his children are going to New Mexico by their shabby school bus, the movie generates another series of small quirky scenes from the awkward interactions between the family and the world outside. When he comes across a pretty girl around his age, Bodevan is naturally attracted to that girl like any teenager boy would, but then he only comes to make himself look silly and strained in front of her while trying to articulate his feelings toward her. When the family drop by Harper’s house, the contrast between them and Harper’s average middle-class family is quite clear from the start, and this accordingly leads to a few funny moments to watch.
I was indeed amused at times during this part, but I must also admit that I also felt some reservation on Ben and his children’s lifestyle, which often induced an urge to call Child Protection Services during my viewing. While it goes without saying that his children have been taught quite well in many aspects, it can also be said that whatever potential they have is blocked by their nearly isolated daily life, and that is exemplified well by Bodevan’s aspiration for higher learning. He wants to study at an Ivy League college, but that means he has to leave his family, so he naturally becomes conflicted when he gets quite a good chance for that. It is disappointing that this personal conflict of his is eventually resolved in a way too trite and convenient, and the same thing can be said about a trouble involved with Bodevan’s younger brother Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), who has more difficulty in dealing with grief and anger than his siblings.
When it later shifts itself to a more serious mode as Ben and his children finally arrive in New Mexico and attend Leslie’s funeral, the movie often stumbles despite its good intentions. What is supposed to be a scathing comment on the hypocrisy of funeral attendees feels more like a rude exercise in self-righteousness, and this jarring impression is further emphasized as Viggo Mortensen’s whimsical performance is rubbed against the no-nonsense acting of Frank Langella, who is actually welcoming as the voice of common sense in the movie. Although Jack dislikes his son-in-law a lot for good reasons, he and his wife Abigail (Ann Dowd) clearly care about their grandchildren, and it is not so difficult to understand their concern and practical view even though they supposedly stand for everything Ben and his wife despised. Now I remember the closing sentence of my late critic friend Roger Ebert’s two-star review on “I Am Sam” (2001): “You can’t have heroes and villains when the wrong side is making the best sense.”
Under the director/writer Matt Ross’ competent direction, Mortensen shows us an unexpected comic side, and he and his young co-performers carry the film well via their natural chemistry clearly shown on the screen, but their admirable acting is unfortunately hampered by weak characterization. Sure, I remember how Ben’s children respectively look like to some degrees, but their personalities are so thin that it was sometime difficult for me to tell who is who despite their deliberately odd names (Can somebody please tell me which one is Kielyr or Vespyr?).
Considering heaps of positive responses it has received since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year (it also received the Directing Prize at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in this year, by the way), you may regard “Captain Fantastic” more favorably than me. The movie somehow failed to hold my interest, but it tries to bounce along with its quirky characters at least, and I did have some odd fun with that even though I did not connect well with its story and characters. I do not think the movie is that fantastic as others think, but I sort of understand its appeals anyway.