Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 13, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Captain Fantastic (2016)

When the title “Captain Fantastic” started popping up last year, I had to remind myself that this movie wasn't some off-brand superhero flick or a film adaptation of the Elton John concept album. Instead, the reviews soon made clear, this was another one of those quirky, indie dramedies that emerge so often out of Sundance. What I had read about the film made it sound, to my ears, a lot like “Little Miss Sunshine,” probably the ultimate Sundance success story. That's probably not a coincidence. It's not like there's a lot of movies about quirky families driving around in brightly colored vehicles. Both even feature funerals as plot points! I also wasn't surprised when the film picked up an Oscar nomination. Movies like this are increasingly within the Academy's radar, as much as glossy costume dramas and fancily acted biopics.

Ben Cash has raised his family of six kids in the woods. He's taught them to hunt, to kill and cook their own food, to mountain climb, to make their own shelters. He's also taught them far left politics and philosophy, preaching against the evils of capitalism and the importance of self-expression. Their odd, forested existence is interrupted when Ben receives news that his wife, Leslie, has killed herself following a bipolar episode. When his father-in-law informs him that Leslie will be given a Christian burial, a violation of her final wishes, he packs the kids into a bus and heads out on a quest to retrieve their mother's body and cremate her corpse. Complications arise along the way.

“Captain Fantastic” is an alright movie – just alright, I must stress – that works best as a fish-out-of-water comedy. Seeing Ben Cash and his family of anti-establishment children react to this capitalistic society produces some solid laughs. When a highway patrolman pulls over the family bus, the kids react by pretending to by hyper-Christian and home schooled, effectively freaking the cop out and scaring him off. While staying at a RV park, son Bodevan attracts the attention of a teenage girl. After her mom catches them making out, his reaction is hilarious. At the same location, Ben scandalizes an elderly couple by exiting his bus completely nude. The best laughs occur when the family stays with Leslie's sister. The kids are aghast at the violent video games their cousins play. A nice moment comes Ben compares the intelligence of the two group of boys. You can see most of these gags coming but they still provide chuckles.

When “Captain Fantastic” attempts to be a serious drama, it becomes far less interesting. The film tries to play the conflict between Cash and his in-laws as a natural reaction to his extreme parenting methods. Yet it's still too willing to make Frank Langella's father-in-law a facile bad guy. The similar misunderstandings between father and sons aren't much to write about. Most annoying is the typical end of the second act shenanigans, when Ben and his kids are separated by a rather contrived dramatic turn. What makes this change especially off-putting is that the son with the least character development is responsible for it. Naturally, everyone is reunited before the end.

“Captain Fantastic's” best attribute, and the same thing that got it an Oscar nomination, is its cast. The nominated Viggo Mortensen finds a nice balance between the character's extreme politics and actually being a reasonable father. The warmth he displays for his kids is genuine, such as when he comforts them after their mother's death. Viggo's character is the film's most nuanced, as he isn't above getting frustrated with his family. Several of the kids give good performances too. George MacKay is very good as Bodevan, especially during his multiple nervous episodes. Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso, as the red-headed twins, get some good moments, such as their reactions to reading “Lolita.” My favorite might be Charlie Shotwell as Nai, the youngest, who has some precocious reactions to learning about sex and a bad habit of coming to the table naked.

“Captain Fantastic” didn't stir too many strong emotions in me, one way or the other. The movie itself is a bit too openly manipulative with its emotions. The ending, which seems to betray the character's fiercely held political beliefs to a degree, is also disappointing. Mortensen is quite good, though I'm not sure if he's good enough to deserve an Oscar nomination. I like the kids and there's one or two endearing scene that makes the film worth seeing. Still, even with its good qualities, “Captain Fantastic” is bound to be remembered as an Oscar footnote. [6/10]

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