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Captain Fantastic

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and Leslie Cash (Trin Miller) have raised their six kids as far away from the corrupting influence of modern society as they can.  They live in a cabin in the remote wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, where they hunt and grow their own food.  They read Dostoyevsky and Hawking by campfire light, and speak seven different languages. When it’s too dark to read, they pull out their hand-made musical instruments and have a hoedown. It looks like a pretty fantastic life.

It’s Swiss Family Robinson meets Walden, but all is not well in the woods.  “Captain Fantastic” opens with a tragic death, that sends the rest of the family on a road trip (in their dilapidated school bus, overhauled to be a camper/trailer/schoolroom) that will require them to admit their own weaknesses, and the limitations of their philosopher-king-deerslayer lifestyle.

Viggo Mortensen gives a great performance, and the writer/director does a great job of quickly, efficiently distinguishing the children from one another (mostly – there seems to be one more than I actually remember.  But as there are six of them, and only 118 minutes of movie, it’s pretty remarkable that five of them are memorable. The best scenes in the film are the family’s interactions, and thankfully, that’s most of the film.  When outsiders get involved, things get a little dicey. The family visits their aunt and uncle (Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn,) and the film becomes hard to watch. They are stereotypes of everything bad about American pop culture – shallow, ignorant, hostile, arrogant, and condescending.  They are so awful, they don’t seem like real people; they seem like what a guy who’s decided to raise his family in the woods thinks real people are like.

I enjoyed the way “Captain Fantastic” wrestles with some tough questions. Yes, it’s amazing what these parents have done, and yet it isn’t the answer to all their problems and, in fact, might be both an arrogant and a despairing choice. Solving one problem often just creates another.  Roughing it in the woods wasn’t enough to cure Leslie from her mental illness; it’s possible that it made it worse.  And the kids, while they can quote Noam Chomsky in their sleep, really have no idea how to interact with people who aren’t like them.  Ben must come to recognize that, even in his efforts to protect his kids from evil, he can’t protect them from his own shortcomings, neuroses, and faults.  Wherever you go — into the deepest woods, even — there you are, and suddenly, there your kids are, too.

I grew up in a rural, backwoods fundamentalist community (really, where we lived couldn’t have been far from where the first act of the movie takes place) and saw plenty of people, more radical than my own folks, who were trying to do some version of that Ben is doing. It seems to me now that such a decision carries an underlying hopelessness and defeat with it: not only are you making sure that your family isn’t influenced by “the world,” you are also making sure that your family has no influence on the world. If all the best people–those willing to craft a life intentionally, not just accept what’s handed to them–pull out of society to avoid being polluted, what will become of society?

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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