BY ROGER THOMAS
“Captain Fantastic” tells the story of a unique family who lives off the land while the children are educated and cared for by their father.
At the beginning of the film, the children’s mother is in the hospital. Before she got sick, she, too, participated in this nontraditional parenting/educational experience.
The early scenes in the film show typical days for the family. They hunt for their food. The children have chores and adventures with their dad (Viggo Mortensen). Everyone reads a book around the campfire at night. The film begins strong, showing off the uniqueness of this parent and his six children.
Then bad news comes. The mother has passed and the father makes a decision they will not go to her funeral. However, he is the kind of parent who has taught his children to challenge his authority and opinions. Before long, the father and his offspring head out on a road-trip to the mother’s memorial service.
Before I saw this film, I must have watched the trailer at least a dozen times. I watched it online once or twice and I saw it in the theatre maybe more than 10 times.
One of the greatest handicaps of the film is I felt like I already knew the story too well. I sat in the theatre telling myself, “This is coming next. Then it will be this. Followed by that.” For me, that happens a lot. So it is the task of the filmmakers to make this familiar material become more than I expected.
“Captain Fantastic” succeeds or fails, depending on which scene in the film one is watching. Here is an example: the funeral is one of the best funeral scenes I have ever seen in a film. Most funerals seem to be written by someone who has never been to a real funeral. I personally have a lot of experience with funerals, so therefore, I can evaluate the authenticity of the moment on screen. There is so much truth in that scene. It is simply a cinematic gem.
There is another scene that is almost equal to that moment. It actually happens earlier in the film. The father, Ben, gets into a heated conversation with his wife’s sister and her husband. The disagreement is about Ben’s home schooling versus the public school his two middle-school-age nephews attend. I am not an advocate for “home schooling” but this is a brilliant scene.
There are many other good moments, less than the two I described, but still strong. The oldest son meets and flirts with a girl for the first time. The middle son makes a choice and takes a stand. Grandparents state their wishes. Some of this would have better if it had not been in the trailer, but it still kept my attention.
And then there are the weaknesses. More than once, the film let me down with implausible twists. If you choose this film for all that is good in it, for you it might overshadow those moments that are weak or unbelievable. For me the funeral scene almost eclipses all the weak moments, but not quite.
Then there is the ending. This story has been about a father who chooses an extreme alternative to traditional parenting. This man has walked a different path from the mainstream for quite a while. One can determine that from the slogan on one of his T-shirts: “Jesse Jackson in 88.” In the latter moments of the film, it seems that maybe, just maybe, this father of six may have moderated his views just a little.
I have assumed that the title of the film, “Captain Fantastic” is a reference to the father. In many ways he is that and maybe the ending reveals he becomes a little more “Fantastic.”
Either way, the film is not great or fantastic, but it does have its moments.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.