Despite having to skip a screening this morning to finish some writing, I still managed to watch four films today—a helpful publicist sent me a screener for one, and I watched it while in line for another film. (Press screenings are great, but yes—the lines are really long.)
Viggo Mortenson plays a loving father who’s also a survivalist, living out in the Pacific Northwest woods with his six children, Swiss Family Robin-style. He homeschools them—the eight-year-old can both recite and explain the necessity of the Bill of Rights—and teaches them how to climb mountains and shoot and skin game and a hundred other things in a sort of extreme CrossFit. He is always honest with them, but clearly loves them. They’re just about the least dysfunctional family you’ve ever seen.
At the film’s start, their mother—his wife—has been gone for months, getting treated for depression, and when they receive bad news, the family piles into the family vehicle, a bus fitted with beds and bookshelves they call “Steve,” and head south.
The film is a sort of cross between Away We Go and Little Miss Sunshine, a road trip of discovery, and often very funny. The family are committed atheists, their isolation a result of an extreme distrust of capitalism; instead of Christmas, they elect to celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday, for which the children all receive bows and hunting knives. When they get pulled over for a broken taillight and the police officer starts to be suspicious, the children start singing the hymn “Glorious Day”—Living, he loved me / dying, he saved me—and announce that they’re Christian homeschoolers to get him to go away. It was Dad’s idea, for just such a situation.
There is a lot to like about Captain Fantastic: for this former homeschooler, a scene in which the oldest son tells his father that he feels like a freak was a little too real, and it hits all the right notes about how different parenting choices can cause problems within families. It also refrains from playing the family’s choices for laughs. Through a bit of good writing, the “normal” parents with the video game-playing kids manage to come off as the weird ones.
Of course, the performances are great; Mortenson is wonderful, and all of the young actors who play the children not only look but act like family. The film is also surprisingly beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, the back third of the film gets a little wandery and maudlin—there are great touching moments, but maybe too many of them, and the effect is blunted.
But I liked it, and, as they say, I felt the feels.
This film gave every indication of great potential, especially given its stars: Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon. The concept is great, too—a woman changes her identity, and we want to know why—and the way that concept is introduced via montage is a remarkable bit of dialogue-free exposition.
But for me, it was a dud. The first half of the film sets up an interesting premise (and has a well-written dinner party scene, one of my favorite things to watch)—but then it just lets its characters discuss that premise instead of developing it further. I’m the last person to insist on manic plot development (Certain Women is one of my favorite films of the festival), but this just feels like a case of running out of steam.