Cannes 2016: Captain Fantastic Review



Captain Fantastic is Matt Ross’ second feature after a long acting career. Not only does he direct, he’s also the screenwriter of this charming, funny, dysfunctional family tale.

We start in Lord of the Flies territory, with a semi-naked, camouflaged kid in a forest. When Bodevan (the perennially startled-looking George MacKay) kills a stag, his siblings and their dad leap out of hiding, for Bodevan to be anointed a man by his father Ben (Viggo Mortensen). Later that night, all cleaned up and sitting around the camp fire, we watch the six children (three boys and three girls, though this is not immediately apparent) reading their intellectually challenging books before they all get out their instruments and break into song. When prepubescent Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) shows his discord with his dad via music, Ben turns the situation on its head and all is harmony in the home.

But not quite. For mum is not in sight and we learn that she lacks serotonin: in layman’s terms she’s depressed. Yet Ben rarely speaks in layman’s terms. These kids are home-schooled and their schoolbooks are unlikely to be included on many American syllabuses any time soon. Nothing is sugar-coated and if the kids ask for an explanation, they get a detailed, honest and adult answer. They despise capitalism, can hunt like ninjas and are capable of analysing the US constitution, yet they are still just kids. When their mother commits suicide they head off on Steve the bus to her funeral in distant New Mexico. Ben has been banned from attending by his grieving and angry father-in-law (Frank Langella), but these rebels are having none of it.

Once outside of their mountain domain, it is soon clear how little the children know of the world surrounding them. They comment in horror on their obese co-citizens, have no idea what Coca Cola is (Ben: “It’s poisoned water”) and every time Bodevan comes across a girl he practically self-combusts. All of these juxtapositions are hilariously laid out for the audience’s delight and we revel in the superiority of these siblings. Each of the six children are phenomenal in their roles, particularly the younger ones who deal with the tricky dialogue as intelligently as the kids they are portraying. MacKay provokes groans along with the laughter as we watch his first foray into courtship. As Ben, Mortensen is convincing and exudes warmth and intelligence from every pore.

There are some issues with the storyline, particularly when Ben is given the choice of leaving his children, and it is almost as if Ross is not as unwavering in pursuing unconventionality as his characters are. Instead he looks for compromise, which is a shame as this remarkable family he has created deserves a more uncompromising alternative future than the one written for them.

However, this is a wonderful creation and an often hilarious one (particularly the family celebration of Noam Chomsky Day). Matt Ross has given us one of the funniest and sweetest films of Cannes so far. Though bearing similarities to that of indie hit Little Miss Sunshine (the angry boy, a death, the road trip in an old bus) – Captain Fantastic remains the more accomplished, compelling piece of cinema.