A widowed father and his children live an outsider life in the wilderness, until they are forced to return to an urban existence, in this wonderful Viggo Mortensen drama
Director: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Frank Langella
Release date: September 9, 2016
Running time: 119 mins
With a title like Captain Fantastic, you could be forgiven for expecting yet another superhero movie. Instead, this Sundance hit from actor-turned-writer-director Matt Ross (Silicon Valley, Big Love) revolves around a gift of a role for lead actor Viggo Mortensen, who could well find himself with a Best Actor Oscar nomination, given a prevailing wind.
Rather than a superhero, Mortensen plays that rare figure in mainstream cinema: an ultra-competent father, whose preternatural parenting skills mark him out as perhaps the screen’s most progressive patriarch.
At the same time, the film uses his character to raise some provocative questions about the clash between idealism and reality.
The film opens with rugged dad Ben Chase (a heavily bearded Mortensen) home-schooling his six children in the American wilderness, with a focus on hunting, farming, literature and survivalism.
When Ben’s beloved wife commits suicide after being hospitalised, he decides to drive the kids to New Mexico so they can attend the funeral, against the wishes of his not-exactly-understanding father-in-law (Frank Langella).
Along the way, the kids get their first experience of the outside world, and begin to realise that their rigorous wilderness education has left them woefully unprepared for real-life interaction.
Mortensen is simply terrific as Ben, delivering a fiercely charismatic performance and generating convincing chemistry with each of the young actors.
Similarly, young British actor George MacKay – appearing here as one of Mortensen’s brood – continues to impress (the expression on his face when he experiences his first crush is priceless), and there’s reliably strong support from Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn as the children’s aunt and uncle.
Langella does a good job as father-in-law Jack, softening the edges of what could easily have been a straightforward caricature.
Serious ideas to explore
Ross packs the film with delightful scenes and moments, such as the kids exclaiming “everyone’s so…big!” when they stop at a supermarket, or youngest daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks) besting her dumbfounded teen cousins with her knowledge of the Bill of Rights when Ben wants to prove a point.
However, in addition to the comedy moments, the film also has some serious ideas to explore, and the cleverness of the script lies in the way you end up admiring Ben’s principles, even as they are shown to have negative consequences.
In addition, the film is beautifully shot, courtesy of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, while Courtney Hoffman’s costume designs add a welcome dash of quirky colour.
Indeed, if there’s a problem with the film, it’s only that the finale feels a little muted compared to what’s gone before, though that doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
By turns laugh-out-loud funny, thought-provoking and quietly moving, this is a sharply written and superbly directed comedy-drama anchored by an awards-worthy performance from Viggo Mortensen.