by Jack Layton
Captain Fantastic opens with Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children leading a life of intellectual and physical freedom in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. We soon learn that the Mother has committed suicide whilst in hospital, and the family then decides to re-enter conventional society, meet with the in-laws, and come to terms with the Mother’s death.
The central conflict in the film is between two worlds. The world that the Father has crafted for his family, and that of conventional capitalist American society. It is the interaction between these two worlds that, for me, means the film is an enjoyable, admirable, failure.
The family’s time in the wilderness is spent between rigorous physical exercise (yoga, trail running, mountain climbing, hand-to-hand combat, hunting), and intellectual exploration (reading Niall Ferguson, Noam Chomsky, Vladimir Nabokov). It is presented as an autonomous utopia of wellbeing. The film invokes the charming quirkiness of Moonrise Kingdom with the fast talking child geniuses, but the story is told with the realist eye of Into The Wild. A balance that is difficult to maintain, especially when the family enters conventional society.
There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments when the family encounters supermarkets, fast-food, video games, and the police. While the children are shown as clearly brighter, fitter, more emotionally adjusted than if they had been bought up in a traditional American family setting. However it soon becomes apparent that their wilderness-style upbringing also has been incredibly risky, and damaging. The eldest child, Bo (George MacKay) is socially clueless, and affectionately inept with women; stating at one point ‘Unless it comes out of a book I don’t know anything!’.
This deconstruction of the quirky wilderness ideal was one of the real strengths of the film. It was as if a family counselling service had been sent into the world of the Royal Tenenbaums. Especially powerful is the clear struggle that Ben goes through in assessing whether he did the right thing for his wife and family in pursuing this lifestyle.
Yet, despite this dark-edged promise, the characters go on less of an arc, learning the foibles of their reckless lives, than come full circle and celebrate their situation from the start of the film. I was left with a sense that the film was attempting to have its cake and eat it too. It was attempting to explore the limitations of a quirky independent wilderness lifestyle, whilst also ultimately championing that lifestyle.
Wes Anderson’s films are successful in what they set out to achieve because they operate in a universe of their own; the audience aren’t asked to believe that the Grand Budapest Hotel could actually be a functioning hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka. Whereas as with Captain Fantastic, the utopia of their wilderness lifestyle, is set in the hard edged world of contemporary America – where people do break their necks, and limbs are fractured. I was not convinced that the Captain-Fantastic-family was viable in the universe of the film. In contrast, a film like Kings of Summer, which attempts a similar feat of escapism turned sour, is more straightforwardly comedic and therefore more coherent.
Despite this, the film is enjoyable enough, funny enough, and smart enough, and worth a watch. It’s just more Captain Fantastical, than Captain Fantastic.