Aragorn takes to the forest with the brilliantly titled Captain Fantastic; find out what Lee thought in his review.
While there are certainly a grand number of human beings that enjoy the act of being preached to (it is how most religions work, after all), generally most people, especially when it comes to storytelling, prefer not to be told we’re doing things wrong and we should do it another way. It’s embarrassing, frankly, to learn that life isn’t how we thought of it, and while everyone is on some level willing to learn more (it is how most brains work, after all), if one must ascribe a certain way of life, its best delivered warts and all, and it’s best told to us discreetly.
With an intriguing concept exploring a family of modern day hippies and philosophers reaching for a utopian life in the forest, Captain Fantastic on the surface level has quite a number of, admittedly pretty obvious, things to say about the way we live, the way we raise our kids, the way we raise ourselves, the way we educate, eat, sleep and exercise and communicate and even the way we tell stories. And, on that basis, it could sound like Captain Fantastic, that smart-ass movie for smart-asses, has failed to grasp the important lesson on discretion. What makes the difference between this and, say, your typical philosopher’s manifesto is that, one, Captain Fantastic explores these concepts with actual human relationships to balance throughout and, two, it displays them with warts and all so we feel related to, not preached at.
Frankly, the film makes a great case against its own characters’ lifestyles, if you choose to read it that way. Their choice for living forms almost the entire dramatic backbone of the story and, while perhaps not enough things change by the films finale, every character at one point admits to this all going too far and destroying them as functioning human beings.
If anything, the story reads as a call for balance, and a call for better education, but it’s buried in there, not spoken outright. Like all great dramas and all great comedies, everyone involved is in the wrong on some level, just some are more so than others. Captain Fantastic respects its audience enough to let them work out that the issues presented are all human and, given the circumstances that kick the real story into gear, the loss of the kids’ mother and Ben’s wife, maybe everyone is just a little affected by the trauma.
Even when the characters do feel a little preachy, or showy, or are set up against obviously more skewed versions of “real” people to prove a point, the film doesn’t let them rest in smug satisfaction for long; ultimately they’re still weirdos, and not the kind that are going to lead the revolution Mortensen’s Ben so avidly craves. What’s more important is how they relate to each other: this is a family, with memorable, likeable characters and a real heart, acting like a real family should. All flawed, but honest, and open, and just trying to do what they think is right by the rest of the family.
The story has a great sense of dark comedy, with some genuinely funny moments that don’t feel cheap and some surprisingly thoughtful approaches to loss, depression and respecting the ones you’ve lost. It’s a pitch-perfect story arc for the characters, and, most importantly, it’s good intentioned. Captain Fantastic isn’t here to tell you how to live your life, but it does show you how some relatable weirdos tried to live theirs, and hopes there’s something to impart from the comparison.
It’s not for everyone; in fact, it will almost certainly have its detractors for, on the surface, potentially calling out people to become hipster treehuggers. It’s simply not the case; what we have here is an honest, funny, beautiful movie that, even if it seems at times a little jagged or a little twee, has all the best intentions in the world and never left me thinking how it could have been done better.