Movie Review – Captain Fantastic

In Captain Fantastic, we meet a family that has decided to live apart from the modern world. The Cash family live in a forest, in an unbearably quaint campsite they have built for themselves. Mom, dad and their six children spend their days learning survival skills and exploring the natural world around them. They are also a thoroughly intellectual family, spending much of the day reading about and discussing political tomes and classical literature. But, tragedy strikes, and Ben and his children have to leave the place they call home on a road trip that will expose the children to the world – and the people – their parents shunned a long time ago.

Maybe at some point in your life, maybe after reading some Thoreau, you have found yourself thinking: “If only I could pack it all in and go live in the forest, wild and free, reading books and eating foraged berries, then, then I’d be truly happy.”

It certainly feels like we live in a world where, as we are still striving to improve, grow, modernise at any cost, we simultaneously get bombarded with messages about how toxic our modern world is, and how nature has the answers we are all looking for. Modern life is – for an awful lot of us – stressful, lonely, anxiety-inducing and perplexing.

So on the surface, Captain Fantastic might seem like just another David Wolfe-inspired Facebook meme come to life. But, in actual fact, it is a deeply moving and honest portrayal of a family full of individuals trying to figure out who they are and how to define who they are. And, yes, even the adults are still just figuring it out, as are most of us. Their way of living is attractive and is even described by one character as “paradise”, yet we are made to understand from quite early on that living in the wild is not a panacea. There is still pain, and there is no running from it.

The concepts that Captain Fantastic grapples with hit incredibly close to home for me and so naturally I was completely taken with this movie. It is a movie about the difficulty of choosing the right path, parents’ love for their children, unconventional living, family ties, mental health and loss. It asks you to think about what it means to live a good life and how parents can give their children a good life that will shape them into well-rounded adults. How do we walk the balance between our own convictions and the rules of society around us?

The acting is spectacular, with Viggo Mortensen’s performance perfectly pitched as a man trying to come to terms with the mistakes he has made while still fighting to keep his family together. He wholly inhabits the role and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing as good a job. The children are all fantastic, well-written characters and the actors bring them to life so well. Particularly the eldest child, played by George MacKay, undergoes a complete transformation in front of our eyes, as a young man just coming into himself. You will miss this family once the credits start rolling.

A lot of the reason for this is also thanks to writer-director Matt Ross. His screenplay is witty, fun, thoughtful, heart warming and heart breaking and manages all of those tones well. There is no doubt that he has an affection for these characters and for their unconventional lifestyle. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that he has made some choices in his writing which allow us a more even handed understanding of who these people are than what one might expect at first. As a slightly crunchy liberal type who was reading Marx at 14, but is nonetheless too skeptical to completely douse myself in the organic, vegetable-dyed, sugar-free Kombucha-Kool-Aid that many hippie types offer up,  I really appreciated this balance.

I loved this movie with every fibre of my being, and know this is something I will return to again and again. The thought that I was left with at the end is that, ultimately, the most essential thing is not so much how we live our life but more who we live it for. And that’s something we could all do with thinking about.