“We’re defined by our actions, not our words.”
What is it to be truly counterculture in the U.S.A today? Perhaps you court your rebellious streak by voting for Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump in the American Presidential Primaries? Perhaps you leave the US for Canada, or somewhere further afield in Europe? For father of six, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), the titular CAPTAIN FANTASTIC in director Matt Ross’s (28 HOTEL ROOMS) second feature film, being counterculture is the act of raising his young children in a patch of forest, deep in the Pacific Northwest, home-schooling them in everything from the Classics to the Constitution – giving them the privilege of a life in the wild, with all the necessary mod-cons the twenty-first century has to offer. The rural idyll presented in the first five to ten minutes of the film, with practically no dialogue, only field recordings of woodland sounds, accompanied by lush, wide aerial landscape shots from DOP Stéphane Fontaine ( A PROPHET, RUST AND BONE) , establishes the family dynamic; introducing each character as the group hunts, reads and plays music communally around the campfire. But one element of the nuclear American family is missing: the mother.
The absence of a maternal figure is due to the slyest of antagonists that affects the best of us from time to time, the ‘Black Dog’ that Winston Churchill famously referred to, namely depression, brought on by a severe bi-polar nature. Tragedy strikes, but the manner in which Ross addresses this mental illness and its effects on the family unit in his film has to be one of the most astute, creative, and heartfelt ways that cinema has tackled the subject in recent years. Playing Ben, Mortensen’s bearded character, with more build, but the same density of facial hair as he wore in THE ROAD, at one point sits underneath a waterfall (presumably an effective way of getting a high-pressured shower in the wilderness) but the way that Fontaine’s camerawork captures the scene – with his body almost becoming one with the flowing water; enveloped by tears, emotionally cleansed by nature at a high tension part of the film – is delicate and tender. Eldest son Bo, played by one of the UK’s most versatile and engaging young actors, George Mackay (FOR THOSE IN PERIL, BYPASS, PRIDE), may be well-versed in literature and political theory, but when it comes to utilising the skills necessary to cope with the absence of his mother, and his burgeoning needs as a young adult, it soon becomes apparent that living in the wild with a father for a tribal leader, is not always the best situation for all of one’s emotional and physical needs.
It soon becomes apparent that living in the wild with a father for a tribal leader, is not always the best situation for all of one’s emotional and physical needs.
Ross’s screenplay should be commended for its well-paced humorous interludes, which often quite literally come from the mouths of babes. Upon discovering that they need to enter mainstream America to visit their grandparents, youngest child Nai (Charlie Shotwell) remarks that “we don’t hate Nan and Grandpa, but the rest of their tribe are fascists.” The pace at which different political ideologies are referenced, dismissed, and utilised again to intellectually undermine everyone from Christian congregations to bumbling traffic policemen, gives the film a distinctly British tonality, despite its American setting. Starting out with a visual look similar to HOOK or THE GOONIES, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC then morphs more towards that of a counterculture road-trip film, in the vein of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.
A beat-up, former School Bus, carrying books, dream-catchers and Ben’s family weaves its way along the highways of the USA, accompanied on the soundtrack by the dulcet tones of bagpipes and drums, suitable for the most raucous of ceilidhs – again lending a European ear to the film’s aural offerings. As with many things in life, everything hinges on events going just-so for Ben and his kids, when they enter the world of rich bourgeoisie grandparents, Jack (Frank Langella) and Abigail ( Ann Dowd). Without revealing their reasons for visiting Grandpa and Grandma Capitalist, it’s safe to say things don’t go so smoothly and this keeps the narrative pace of the film moving along nicely. The events in the closing quarter of the film are visualised perfectly through the message behind Ben’s t-shirt: a faded white baseball top which reads “Jesse Jackson for President. 1988.” Ben and his family support the right cause, but not necessarily the winning cause.
For the film’s screening in the Un Certain Regard strand at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, when asked if he had anything to say to the assembled 1000+ audiences members in Salle Debussy, young actor Charlie Shotwell paused, looked to his co-stars and cheekily quoted an apt line from the film, which sums up the message at the heart of Ross’s wonderful, life-affirming feature: “Power to the people…stick it to the man!” A funny, intelligent, and at times tear-jerking look at what it’s like to be part of a small sociological tribe in our contemporary society, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC feels ripe to win an award or two at Cannes, and is well-placed to join the cannon of favourite cult indie films for many an audience member upon its theatrical release later in the year.