‘Captain Fantastic:’ thought-provoking or pretentious mess?

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 10/11/16 12:00am

Is “Captain Fantastic” the most intelligent film I’ve seen so far this year, or is it the most painfully pretentious? Honestly, it’s probably both. Sometimes I’m just at a loss for words. Exactly one week ago I strolled into Spaulding Auditorium to watch “Captain Fantastic.” Two hours later I walked out and thought to myself, “Well, that was...interesting.” And for the past seven days that’s about the only meaningful thing I’ve had to say about the film: It was “interesting.” Not because I didn’t “get it,” but because I genuinely could not decide how I felt about it. Well, it’s been a week, I’m still not fully decided, but here it goes.

Every aspect of this film that does and does not work stems straight from its story. Ben Cash (Viggo Mortenson) and his wife Leslie are more or less new age hippies who have become disillusioned with modern American life. So they decide to build a little utopia for themselves and their six children in the middle of the forest, essentially cutting off all ties to the outside world. The couple teach their children basic survival skills while also reading everything from Nabokov’s “Lolita” to books on quantum mechanics. And instead of celebrating Christmas they celebrate Noam Chomsky day. I appreciated that detail. Sadly, Leslie has bipolar disorder and eventually has to be hospitalized, only to commit suicide shortly thereafter. Leslie’s resentful parents warn Ben not to come to the funeral, but he packs the family into their bus and departs to save his wife, a Buddhist, from the humiliation of a Christian funeral.

The fascinating premise is for the most part executed well, up until the ending. The film fully utilizes Ben’s philosophy on modern life and child-rearing to raise a lot of interesting and, frankly, important questions. For example: Why do we lie to our children? Why do we allow them to consume things that we know aren’t good for them? Why shouldn’t we hold children to a higher standard of intelligence? Why should we have a holiday to celebrate a magical elf rather than a real life humanitarian? A sequence in which Ben and his children spend the night with his sister Harper’s family illustrates Ben’s child rearing philosophy particularly well. Ben questions Harper’s teenage sons about the Bill of Rights before revealing that his 8-year-old daughter, Zaja (Shree Crooks), can recite it by heart.

Director Matt Ross takes an even-handed approach to these philosophical topics, never shying away from revealing the dark side of Ben’s lifestyle. This is not one of those offbeat comedies that revels in a “fight the man” attitude; it willingly demonstrates that sometimes fighting the man just for the sake of a fight can result in injury or death. Halfway through, Leslie’s father, Jack (Frank Langella), who starts out as the story’s antagonist, accuses Ben of child abuse, and we can’t help but see that he has a point. Ben regularly risks the lives of his children just to validate his anti-establishment philosophy. We see just how limiting that philosophy can be when the eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) bemoans the fact that he knows nothing beyond what he has learned from books. He’s not wrong.

In the first two-thirds of “Captain Fantastic,” while the story occasionally meandered, the strong acting, especially by Mortenson and MacKay, the humor and the thought-provoking nature of the film kept me invested. And then the last act rolled around. The movie didn’t really fall apart so much as it started to show a series of cracks that undermined the entire experience. I felt initially that the film would wrap up in a way that balanced its themes, acknowledging both the validity and the danger inherent in Ben’s worldview. And then, suddenly, the movie chickened out. It was as if Ross was too scared of ending the film in such a morally ambiguous manner so he hastily contrived an ending which would allow everyone to leave the theater on a confident high note. The final shot undermined this “happy ending.” Sadly, that shot made me think of the film that could have been rather than the film that I actually watched.

“Captain Fantastic” is not a bad film but it had the potential to be something really special. Instead it settles for “interesting,” a film I mostly enjoyed while watching but probably wouldn’t choose to see again any time soon. That being said, if the premise sounds interesting, I would encourage you to watch this film. While the film’s ending does not deliver, “Captain Fantastic” is thought-provoking in a way few films this year have been. It manages to translate some very esoteric ideas into a clever and relatable story, no small feat as far as I’m concerned.

“Captain Fantastic” is playing in select theaters nationwide.

Rating: 7/10