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Captain Fantastic (2016)

Director: Matt Ross


Like Ben and his children attending a funeral all dressed in bright red and green, Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic is a soulful burst of color in the dark sad affair that is current moviemaking. Telling the story of the Cash family, the film follows the everyday life of Ben (masterfully played by Viggo Mortensen) as he trains and educates his six children in the middle of a forest. The setting may first seem like a summer camp but it turns out to be the permanent residence of the family where they exercise, hunt, play music, and learn everything from self-defense and bone carving to quantum physics and law. Their utopian microcosm is suddenly disturbed when they receive the news of their hospitalized mother’s death. What follows is the journey of a family vying to prove itself to the world.

The film is an outstanding social commentary on today’s world as well as a deliberation about the generation gap. At the beginning one may think Ben is hypocrite who decides to isolate his family from a corrupt world that indoctrinates all minds only to do that very same thing to them – protect them against the evil of the world by injecting them with his own set of beliefs. However as the film progresses we can see the nuances of Ben’s character, especially when contrasted against other characters. Other parental characters in the film are illustrated as either dictators who completely disregard their children’s wishes or blindly supportive shadows for their children and both juxtapose with Ben’s role in enlightening his family through free and unrestricted access to truth. Truth is a key concept that is tackled in an entirely original way: a multi-dimensional approach spanning different generations and mentalities. The film discusses the relationship between finding the truth and age. Ben refuses to lie to his children about anything and always divulges the truth about pertinent issues such as capitalism, sex, fascism, and religion which are generally avoided when talking to eight-year-olds. Unlike Harper (Kathryn Hahn) who argues that lying to children is for the sake of “protecting [them] from concepts that they are too young to understand,” Ben believes in no age when it comes to knowledge. However, what Ben eventually realizes is that knowing the truth about the world is not the same thing as living in it. He chooses to move his children into their grandparents’ residence and surrenders to the real world, accepting that this time he is not right and relinquishing his control. But he is not giving up; he’s giving in. Soon after returning back to the forest all by himself, Ben is surprised to find his children had followed him. The seeds he had sowed in their souls were blooming, the ideas growing into actions; he had raised them well and they were ready to face the world.


The Cash siblings

The film’s top moments involve death but they do not engulf the audience in melancholy but rather in the magnificent bond between humans, alive and dead. The first moment takes place early on in the film when Ben finds out his wife had died. Instead of inserting a typical hysterical reaction, Matt Ross chooses to transport us to a waterfall. Ben showers in the waterfall, bathing in nature’s ever flowing tears. The second moment is on the family’s bus where angelic music and light floods the scene as the children lay around their mother’s corpse on its way to be cremated. Death is portrayed as an ethereal experience not of loss but of love; a celebration of humanity. During the cremation ceremony, the children play music, sing, and dance while their mother’s body fades into ashes and her love flowers into them.

The use of close ups and music attenuates the emotional connection between the characters and the audience. We’re drawn into their special world where they celebrate Noam Chomsky day instead of Christmas and howl in excitement through their eyes and rhythms. Creating a successful dramedy, Ross fuses elements from different genres and the product is a genuine, thought-provoking, heartwarming experience of what it is to be alive.

Captain Fantastic won the Un Certain Regard Directing award at Cannes Film Festival 2016.