“Should I make my way out of home into the woods… too hot for the band with a desperate desire for change.”
The hark-back to lyrics from ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,’ the title track to Elton John’s ninth album, will not be lost on fans of the singer, nor the less than casual allusions to ‘Brave New World’ that will thrill Huxley fans alike.
Director Matt Ross, who you might remember as Luis from American Psycho, has crafted this unusual family comedy, in every sense off the beaten track. Ben (Viggo Mortensen), alongside his wife raises his kids in the American wilderness on a steady diet of self-defence training, home-grown food, Noam Chomsky and just about anything antithetical to capitalism. When his wife dies, it comes time for everyone to head off across the country to attend her funeral.
Opening sequences wordlessly set the tone for the unique world the family have created – whether it be dreaming up new rhythms in a drum circle, hunting their daily feed or scaling a mountain you wouldn’t normally expect kids to be too crash hot with. Captain Fantastic really hits its stride when everyone heads out into civilisation, boasting oft-hilarious encounters you would expect from the band of ‘noble savages,’ including elder son Bodevan’s (George Mackay) introduction to a young woman, and his younger sibling’s first exposure to ‘devil water,’ otherwise known as Coca-cola.
Complemented by a fine cast, including Frank Langella as the troupe’s grandfather, it’s the child actors that really make this film. Contending with their mother’s death and a whole range of new trials, depicting these characters who come from very far out of left field is not the easiest feat, with the young cast rising to the challenge admirably.
A fascinating concept in and of itself, Captain Fantastic errs when it decides to jump through all too many narrative hoops in its later stages. Seemingly determined to cover as many plot machinations as possible, the story moves from a character study to a series of their perfunctorily disaffecting decisions that while furthering developments sacrifice the thoughtful, clearly contemplated tone of so many of their previous actions and that of the film itself. Rushing along all to quickly towards its end and the point Captain Fantastic nakedly wants to drive home, what could have been an overly sentimental ending is saved by a staggeringly macabre turn of events – what would be incongruous in almost any other film playing to startling effect in the film’s penultimate and highly memorable moments.
As much a treatise on divergent approaches to parenting as anything else, Ben’s shocking candidness with his children leads to the rawest and most heartfelt moments of the film, his manner such that it would conversely compound the view, no doubt held by many, that his particular style of rearing leaves a lot to be desired. A film with the promise to fuel debate about nurture as much as it could the environment or a slew of other prevalent issues, regardless of whether you loathe Ben or love him, Captain Fantastic manages to be a hugely entertaining film anchored by a young, exceptional ensemble cast.
Captain Fantastic is screening at the Sydney Film Festival on Saturday 18 June – for tickets head to the Festival website