With all the hoopla surrounding last Sunday's blunder at the Academy Awards, it’s easy to forget that the primary purpose of the ceremony isn’t to hand out prizes, but rather, to celebrate and promote movies. Tucked inside the glam of glistening dresses, monotonous speeches and coveted trophies is an opportunity to consider films that one might not have otherwise. For me, this year’s Best Picture nominees did just that, as I went out of my way to watch movies that normally wouldn’t have been on my radar (Moonlight and Hell or High Water, just to name two). But Jimmy Kimmel inspired me to take things further. During his monologue, he cracked the following joke aimed at actor Viggo Mortensen, the star of Captain Fantastic: “Too often the Academy only recognizes movies that people have seen.”
That inspired me to go beyond the Best Picture nominees, of which I’d seen eight of nine, and extend my viewing to other films that were up for awards. First for me was the aforementioned Captain Fantastic. In this film, Ben is raising his six children in the relative isolation of a Washington forest, where they grow and hunt food, learn self-defense as well as literature, science and math, and stick to a strict routine of exercise and chores. Ben is demanding, and his children are up for the challenge, exhibiting signs of impressive strength, intelligence and camaraderie. In short, the family is living a sort of Utopian existence in a wilderness paradise.
When the children’s mother kills herself after an extended mental illness and lengthy hospital stay, Ben takes his children into town to visit his sister’s family, and we get a unique opportunity to see the world through the eyes of kids who’ve been raised apart from our modern society. Suddenly, the endless stream of shopping malls, overweight people and fake food appear especially tragic, and teenage access to violent video games utterly preposterous. The message isn’t subtle, but it is illuminating.
Unfortunately, writer and director Matt Ross continues to paint in such broad brushstrokes that as enjoyable as the film may be, little of it is believable. Ben’s sister’s family is naturally a stereotype, with overly protective parents when it comes to real life tragedies (i.e., the suicide of Ben’s wife) but who allow ample access to violent video games and whose kids are bumbling idiots. Ben’s kids, of course, are the kind of angelic children any adult would be privileged to raise: strong, confident, intelligent, knowledgeable, loving, musical and kind, all brilliantly portrayed by talented young actors and all desperately two-dimensional, a modern day version of The Sound of Music’s Von Trapp family. But Captain Fantastic isn’t a musical. Our belief is suspended just enough to enjoy the film, but never enough to swallow it whole.
If Ben and his family show any dimensions at all, it appear to be in spite of Ross’s efforts, rather than because of them. Scenes apparently meant as comedic relief instead show an ugly side to Ben. He eschews his father-in-law’s wishes for them not to attend his daughter’s funeral. Fine. But they arrive late, making a grand entrance that would be disrespectful under any circumstances, and Ben wears a red suit that cries for attention, until he interrupts the pastor’s sermon and unilaterally demands attention. In this scene, and in another that has the family employing a ruse to steal food from a grocery store, the outcome isn’t comedic at all, but rather a glimpse into a very flawed human being.
Still, the movie shines when it concentrates on the family enjoying each other’s company. When Ben’s daughter describes a book she’s reading as “interesting,” he demands she try again, claiming the word has no meaning. She does, with success, and it reminds me of all the times I use words that come easily to me instead of searching for the correct ones.
The conflict in this movie is minimal, and I applaud Ross for not taking the easy way out in this regard. It brings to mind Chef, a film that could have gone down so many Hollywood tropes, but stuck the its central purpose – the relationship between a father and son. Similarly, Captain Fantastic succeeds most when it allows us to watch this unusual family interact with each other. I found the last scene, as understated as it may be, as touchingly brilliant.