Sydney Film Festival Review: Captain Fantastic (USA, 2016)

Viggo Mortensen is no stranger to portraying a damaged father in a journey to protect his children à la The Road, but Matt Ross’ quirky tale has a lot more than just Aragon to draw in audiences.

A quick glance at Ross’ resume won’t inspire confidence because of its relative shortness, however, Captain Fantastic flew well under the radar in the lead up to Sydney Film Festival and perhaps this is the reason most audiences were surprised to walk out of the cinema both touched and conflicted. Following his wife’s suicide, Viggo Mortensen’s Ben and his seven children, whom they had raised in the woods to hunt and educate themselves into athletic philosophers, seek to send their mother into the afterlife the way she wished, at the opposition of others who had conversely not lived in a forest for some fifteen years.

And it’s true, we’ve seen this skeleton before; the relatable outsiders want to do something righteous, and they’re pushed away by those in suits, but we invest in their plight against normality, and it would be a lie not to admit that Captain Fantastic is a feel-good film. But don’t be fooled by the relatively noncomplex plot, as this tale is a journey akin to Little Miss Sunshine, complete with its quirky facades concealing darker interiors. It’s this dichotomy that draws the audience in; a family of kooky kids with their own distinct passions, following the command and teachings of an eccentric yet well-meaning father using a life in the wilderness to escape the system, but broken down most of these characters have their own personal tragedies.

It’s the relationship between father and children and the heartbreak that follows when these relationships are torn down by people who “just don’t understand” that move us to fight for these characters. It’s as much a journey of discovery and change as it is about standing your ground against those who try to throw you into the dirt. Some characters aren’t without their flaws or rushed arcs, but Mortensen and his eldest son, played by George Mackay, carry this film with intensity when required and delicacy when desired, with simple strokes of the hand bringing more development to each character as the plot progresses.

Story and performances aside, the cinematography is near-immaculate, utilizing the flowing mountainous landscapes and rich greens and browns to affect the earthy tones that form the foundations of this movie. The embracing of natural imagery, even within urban environments, reflects the principle of this film that is human nature; creatures built to fight, built to learn, built to love free from suits and ties and organized chaos. Ross has created a piece that, despite its subtle flaws, is dazzling in its achievements but still beautiful in its imperfections.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Captain Fantastic screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival

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