Movie reviewsMovies

Captain Fantastic – Movie Review

15 September, 2016 — by Douglas Clarke-Williams2

Captain Fantastic skips around the edges of saying something meaningful about our society, about families and about people, but ultimately feels too in love with its own intelligence and intentions to find the space for understanding.

captain fantastic

That’s not to say that Captain Fantastic is an unenjoyable film. As Ben, played by Viggo Mortensen, takes his survivalist family on a road trip to their mother’s funeral there are moments of real laughter (believe it or not based on that summary), and some genuinely touching scenes.

The child actors, as all child actors seem to be these days, are a delight; talented, natural and filled with an effortless individuality. Shree Crooks, playing the second-youngest Zaja, is particularly endearing in her filthy dinosaur onesie, thumbing sceptically through The Joy of Sex. The other five members of the brood – Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annaliese Basso), Rellion (Nicholas Hamilton – not that Nicholas Hamilton) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) – are all convincing as they whirl around one another in a haze of hormones.

But it’s worth observing that the two girls enjoy significantly less attention and screen-time than the shouty, self-righteous boys, even when they’re all apparently as fit as pro athletes. The most prominent placing either Isler or Basso receive is when one of them is needed as a damsel in distress.

And that’s only a small part of what makes Captain Fantastic so fundamentally unsatisfying, particularly in the early scenes when the family is living in a Swiss Family Robinson-esque idyll.

captain fantastic scenery

Director Matt Ross constructs an evocative and intoxicating world. It’s the kind we’d all like to live in – all freshly killed and grilled venison with home-grown vegetables that apparently flourish in the Pacific Northwest. “A beautiful fairytale” is how Ben dismissively refers to religion at one point, and we’re clearly supposed to cheer our good liberal hearts out at this firm reckoning of a man who really knows the world, rather than all these stuffed shirts with their video games and food which they haven’t personally stabbed to death.

But what are we being shown here if not just that – a beautiful fairytale? We’re meant to take against the grandfather because he’s ornery and rich, but his critique of Ben’s lifestyle isn’t entirely wide of the mark; maybe making a six year-old child do hill sprints every day isn’t the Platonic ideal of parenting.

captain fantastic hill sprint

Captain Fantastic is also (and I’m going to let myself say this because the whole thing is just so pleased as punch with itself that it invites exactly this kind of engagement, which is part of what makes it so irritating) fairly problematic. As well as turning his children into Tarzan, Ben also ensures that they’re deeply educated in national and global history, heavily laced with some cod-anti-capitalist philosophy.

If you ever found yourself at university getting high with that guy who regularly wears a beret and a Che Guevara T-shirt who hands out pamphlets outside the library and has kinda sorta read Das Kapital, you’ll be familiar with the lines this family comes out with. Hell, I was 15 years old and read Catcher In The Rye; we’ve all been there. But the problem is that Ben ensures his children have read all the greats – Dostoevsky, Chomsky, Nabokov. All a bunch of dead or very old white dudes. You would think that a man this radical in his thinking would have been able to dig up some Malcolm X or Frederick Douglass or Maya Angelou.

Is the film making a clever statement about the tendency of the white patriarchy to perpetuate its own norms even as it believes itself to be actively working against them, or is it using big names on big books to condescendingly beat the audience into intellectual submission? I’ll let you decide.

captain_fantastic cast in the woods

There’s plenty else which grates about this film: a script which lurches between endearing and nakedly emotionally exploitative; a leading man who excels at the subtle microexpressions and is here called upon almost exclusively for wild arm-waving gestures; a denouement which feels fundamentally unearned…

It’s a shame. There could have been a lot to love about Captain Fantastic, and if you don’t look too hard it’s a moderately enjoyable romp. But if you want kooky roadtrip, go back to Little Miss Sunshine. If you want family toughing it in the wilderness, watch The Mosquito Coast. If you want to experience more rage about the struggles of a liberal arts graduate displaced into the aggressive deconstruction of a fairly inoffensive film, email me. 2/5

Check out more of the latest cinema releases in our new movie reviews section, including the beautifully poignant Little Men.

Captain Fantastic


  • Leon Barton

    15 September, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Chomsky’s dead?

    • Christopher Ratcliff

      15 September, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      Well eventually.

Leave a Reply