An eccentric, heartfelt, funny and philosophically thought-provoking family drama with themes of anti-capitalism and unconventional parenting
Directed and written by Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms) who plays the role of Gavin Belson in the HBO series Silicon Valley, Captain Fantastic stars Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eastern Promises) as Ben who lives off the grid in the forest with his family. He's been raising all six of his children out there with unconventional ways and educates them with his own ideology. After finding out that his wife has committed suicide while being treated for bipolar disorder, he and his kids embark on a journey to attend her funeral in New Mexico despite being warned by Jack, his wealthy father-in-law (Frank Langella) who would have him arrested if he comes. Things get out of hand when the kids see and experience the real world for the first time.
Captain Fantastic was screened at Sundance and Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and has been receiving plenty of positive reviews from critics ever since. Unlike its superhero-like title, the film is actually a deep, thought-provoking family drama that's also sweet, heartfelt, situationally hilarious and unpredictable despite its rather conventional three-act structure. Strong performances all around by the main cast, especially Mortensen, widely popular for his role as Aragon from The Lord of the Rings, who plays the eccentric and yet relatable loving father.
The film explores themes of unconventional parenting and anti-capitalism through the perspectives of Ben versus the norms, offering honest and valid opinions about the society and economic system. Ben teaches his kids everything he knows and all that books can offer, including socioeconomic, democracy, philosophy, music and hardcore skills of survival. Most of his kids are philosophers in their own right despite being as young as 9 years old. When one of them asked why they can't celebrate Christmas like everyone else, he asks him to convince the family with valid reasons. Some times he even forces his kids to find ways to survive on their own even when they're seriously injured.
But doesn't that make Ben some sort of a fascist? When his kids are in New Mexico, they feel like aliens that know nothing as they weren't allowed to experience what they were taught about the society as they were like "home schooled". They don't quite know how to interact with people and have no idea what certain things are. When his daughter asks him what Coke is, he answers "poison water". At first, I thought Ross wasn't being too subtle about what he thinks about the world and capitalism but what he's really doing is poking the audiences the irony of rights and wrongs. What seems right feels wrong while what's wrong may not actually be in the whole package that you decide to hate or abandon. Knowing too much might jeopardise happiness.
While the film tries not to be bias to either capitalism or Ben's ideology, the story does have its own resolution to family's problems at the end that the audiences may just have to agree to disagree. The only flaw in the film is how easy some issues are suddenly escalated and resolved, which makes the ending less powerful than it could've been. The female characters are somehow also less involved in all conflicts. However, none of that ruins the ultimate purpose of the film, which is putting some things into perspectives for the likes of Ben. The film also may have given Guns N' Roses' classic track Sweet Child O'Mine a new meaning. I've never been moved by the song until I saw this film.
Malaysian censorship: Even the younger characters say 'fuck' a lot in the film but none is muted as the film is rated 18 here. Scenes with mild nudity, however, are censored with mosaics.
Second opinion: Two of the people at screening I attended agreed that the performances were fantastic but they're not okay with certain things about the film, especially the (spoiler) scene in the film.
Verdict: The kind of family drama you'd expect from indie film festivals — eccentrically good and purposeful.
Rating: 4 / 5
Running Time: 116 minutes
Director-writer: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, George MacKay
Malaysia Release Date: 11 August 2016
Local Distributor: GSC Movies
Production: Electric City Entertainment, ShivHans Pictures
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