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Film review: Captain Fantastic – Viggo Mortensen plays an unorthodox father in offbeat family drama

The values of a one-parent family raised in the wilds clash with those of suburban America in an original, challenging tale ultimately let down by a disappointing, incongruous ending

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 8:01am

3.5/5 stars

Captain Fantastic would be excellent if it wasn’t for a badly made, out-of-place finale which aims for catharsis and closure where it would have been better left open-ended and which casts an unsatisfying pall over what came before. Otherwise, this offbeat drama by writer-director Matt Ross is provocative, witty, unusual and original.

For the most part, Ross achieves something difficult: he makes an unlikely situation seem eminently possible while it’s unfolding. The story revolves around a one-parent family, led by father Ben (Viggo Mortensen), who live in the wilds of Washington state. Ben, a Marxist, teaches his kids how to survive in the wild by wielding knives, and home-schools them in everything from political theory to current affairs.

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When the family hear that their terminally ill mother has passed away, they decide to make a trip into the suburbs to attend her funeral, even though the brood have been banned from the event by their staid grandfather. Drama develops when their values clash with those of suburban America.

The film stands out because Ross decides to go the whole hog with his idea, and avoids the self-absorbed attitudes that mar most contemporary US indie films. The kids fight each other viciously in knife practice, kill animals for food, and rob supermarkets with no fear or remorse. There are even traces of German maestro Werner Herzog’s wild and crazy style in the direction.

The film is ultimately about how we should treat our children. Do we teach kids to think for themselves, or to conform to the wishes of society? At what age should children be treated like adults? Should we lie to our kids to stop them getting hurt, or tell them the truth, no matter how difficult that is? Captain Fantastic addresses these questions head-on in an unflinching way – it’s just a shame about that ending.

Captain Fantastic opens on December 29

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