Film Review | My family and other (wild) animals

Captain Fantastic is a heartfelt tribute to the flawed power of family love under trying circumstances • 3/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
19 October 2016, 9:30am
Quirky does it: Viggo Mortensen (second from left) takes an unconventional route to parenting in actor Matt Ross’ directorial debut
Quirky does it: Viggo Mortensen (second from left) takes an unconventional route to parenting in actor Matt Ross’ directorial debut
Midway through his festival-attention-courting comedy-drama Captain Fantastic, actor-turned-writer-director Matt Ross drops a fairly heavy piece of thematic exposition on the audience. While the itinerant – and newly-motherless – family now led solely by patriarch Ben (Viggo Mortensen) are on the road for the umpteenth time, one of his daughters, Kielyr (Samantha Isler), surprises him by revealing that she’s currently reading Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial classic Lolita. 

Somewhat bristled by this revelation – she has not yet been ‘officially’ assigned the novel in her father’s thorough but makeshift homeschooling regimen – Ben proceeds to ask her what makes the novel so notable: outwardly rejecting – aided by a booing chorus of her siblings – her initial and disapprovingly pat descriptor, “interesting”.

Pressed to be more and more specific in her textual analysis, Kielyr arrives at the much celebrated moral and aesthetic ambiguity achieved by Nabokov in that landmark work of 20th century literature: the fact that on one level, the novel gives vent to an account by someone who is undeniably a child molester, but that at the same time invites you to identify with Humbert Humbert’s thwarted desire. 

And while there is thankfully not even the slightest hint of sexual abuse in Ben’s unconventional parenting programme, the ethics underlying his uncompromising back-to-nature approach leave much to be desired. But as is the case with Humbert Humbert, the incriminating is mixed in with the loving, and Mortensen’s delicate performance ensures we’re swept along on his idealistic path for as long as is tenable.

Into the wild: Mortensen and Samantha Isler
Into the wild: Mortensen and Samantha Isler
Needless to say, perhaps, it doesn’t remain tenable for very long, but we still get to indulge in Ben’s utopian dream enough to be charmed by it. With a powerhouse performance by Mortensen – who does his thoroughly masculine brand of ‘sensitive’ once again – at it centre and rounded up by stellar (and consistently and surprisingly non-irritating) kids’ cast rounding things up, Ross manages to get at the transgressive joys of this lifestyle. Unfortunately, this also results in some sub-Wes Anderson stylistic tics, with the kids’ garish getups appearing to serve as little more than viral-friendly stills, and their nature as impossibly intelligent prodigies coming across as a bit false.

Ross’ biggest narrative mistake is in choosing to spend too much time in the fantasy. This becomes evident when the intrusion of a kindly but party-pooping grandfather (Frank Langella – playing Leslie’s grieving father) reveals the cracks in Ben’s plan. But what he reveals most of all is Ben’s fascinating attempt at dealing with grief and the degree of his denial: a conflict that’s far too compelling for the little screen time it’s given.

Still, by the end of it all there won’t be a single heartstring to remain unplucked as you follow this unconventional family’s efforts to “stick it to the man” and subsist at the fringes of capitalist society. Mortensen doesn’t falter in his quiet grief and misguided – but always true – compassion, and the kids are also given their space to shine, with the older ones in particular gradually developing their own personalities as they begin to put Ben’s ‘mission’ into question.

Captain Fantastic is a heartfelt tribute to the flawed power of family love under trying circumstances that’s both enhanced and hindered by its – sometimes forced – attempts at dialing up the quirkiness factor.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...