By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
People who have followed the Canadian Court case of David and Collet Stephans, an Alberta couple accused of not giving their 19 month-old son the necessary medical treatment before his death as a result of bacterial meningitis, will know The couple believed in alternative medicine. Viewers may find an eerie semblance to what the story Captain Fantastic offers.
The real life case made the news early this year when the sentence was finally passed and fortunately, the fictional take travels down a different route. Ben (excellently played by Viggo Mortensen) and Leslie Cash (Trin Miller) are believers of a different social norm. They want their children to know how to work with the natural world like the First Nations people (or Druids in Europe) than be slaves to an order. Whether that be by nationality or spiritual point of view, the narrative is thought-provoking.
Ben has issues with how American society developed since the days of Industrialization and Leslie is a Buddhist. They found happiness together but when the weight of Leslie’s bipolar condition became too much, she was taken to an institution to receive the best care possible. The husband had no idea in what to do, and all he could think of was to take care of his sons and daughters. Most of whom have names sounding like they should belong to some tiny Icelandic community.
Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) wonder when their mother will come home so they can be together again. When they have lived off the grid for a good decade (at least), just what they learned is in how to fend for themselves if Western society is ever to crumble. They are excellently homeschooled and taught to think critically, but is that enough? Every one of them has personal challenges to overcome.
Bodevan is the eldest and he is perhaps the most challenged and awkward of the group. He knows what is out there and longs to find his place in the world. Rellian is at a precocious age where he needs stability. Secretly, he most likely misses his mother the most. Hamilton is excellent in this role and looks to have a promising career as the next teen heartthrob. The girls are smart and sadly, they lack a certain independence in what kind of role they are supposed to represent in the microcosm created by living in their own special world. I wanted to see them flourish as fiercely independent persons. Instead of just maintaining a household, what more can they offer? Most of the children are like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. They are smarter than the average regularly raised kid, and perhaps that’s what the elder girls are. They are like Wendy in a matriarchal sense. When the real mother is gone, just who can help keep the family together falls on them. Kielyr and Vespyr are twins and they share the responsibilities. When they have four younger siblings, the task to keep life in order is going to be tough.
When the real world is out there, the big question I have to ask is if they are even ready to deal with the rest of society without prejudice? They are raised on the principles of Noam Chomsky and have a view on life completely alien to the rest of the family. When this clan visits the big cities, they have questions and contempt. This tale is filled with social commentary. Conflicting views on what is right for a young mind to hear is at the core. Whether that’s with how to properly raise a child, how to mend fences between the larger family as a whole, which type of social order is right, who is God and how to properly grieve — this movie is a product that can be discussed over and over by film scholars. It is majestic in scope and yet, stays sublimely humorous to distill the maudlin look at the modern life of any nuclear family.
However, that does not mean we all have to escape into woods to escape Big Brother. What this film does is to show that everyone has a choice to make. That includes who the children want to be with at the end. While Bodevan completes his rite of passage into adulthood, everyone else still needs guidance. Their grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins represent a life foreign to them. Try as they might to bring them into the fold, the Cash clan’s rejection of that lifestyle is at the core of this film. The youths do not want to lose their father and that heartfelt sentiment can be seen throughout this movie.
At another level, Ben has to learn how to not let his pride get in the way of successfully raising his children. Had they been lost to Grandpa Jack (Frank Lengella), perhaps Ben might fall ill just like his wife. Instead, I enjoyed the fact he learns these constructs of a modern society exist for a reason. I recognized the spiritual Viking connection. Ben wears a Mjöllnir pendent because he is Thor in disguise. While he hoped to shape his kids for a greater purpose, they still need time to be what they are — children. He’s Captain Fantastic for a reason. He wants to protect them. But he has to allow nature take its course and let his kids choose what they want. Also, this patriarch has to do the best with the cards life has dealt.
4 Stars out of 5