Adele Wong
by Adele Wong

Captain Fantastic was not what I had expected in a few ways.

Let's start with the superficial - I love the Pacific Northwest and definitely harbour secret fantasies of living near nature, leading a sustainable life farming, fishing for my own food, and waking up to stunning views everyday. Naturally, I thought I would enjoy watching Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and family living off the grid. But I was not prepared for how hardcore and savage their activities would be! This pretty much sets the tone for the film for me.

I was also not prepared for a cast of children surprising me with their political and philosophical dialogue. I was instantly transported back to my classroom taking classes in political science while majoring in sociology, invited to a chat, or rather, as the characters would say it, "let's have a discourse" about political philosophies, and, railing against capitalism. Particularly endearing was when the two youngest children spouted adult arguments without flinching. 

Director Matt Ross, Viggo Mortensen and rest of the cast posed with middle finger salutes during the 69th Annual Cannes Film Festival

What I was most unprepared for was to flip and flop between taking the “protagonist’s side” and the “villain’s side”… until I realised that that was the point of the whole film! 

Director Matt Ross, being an actor himself (Silicon Valley), was interested in presenting a complex character in Ben Cash, relatable because he is so flawed, meaning that audiences can attach their own experiences to him and let the film speak to them in their own language instead of having a clear moral high ground. It is a refreshing and realistic approach to a story about a man leading his family in an ‘alternative lifestyle’ before losing his wife to a condition. And it is perhaps this instinct, coupled with his determination to wait two years for Viggo Mortensen’s schedule to clear for this role that eventually won him the best director award at Cannes, along with nominations across various different awards and festivals, like Mortensen’s award for Best Actor. Ross also wrote the film himself and says he drew from both his personal experience growing up in an “alternative lifestyle commune” as a child, and as an adult, questioning his parenting choices. This perhaps explains how he came up with such a unique script.

So Ben Cash is banned from his wife’s funeral by her wealthy parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd), but sets out of the wilderness with his brood and into civilisation on a little road trip to fight for what he believes in. On the way, he stops by to stay with his sister’s family (Kathryn Hahn), but once we meet her, we realise that while she is disapproving of his choices, she just wants the best for his children. As do his parents-in-law. And that’s when we start being unsure about rooting for Ben Cash as he struggles to stick to his guns in the best way he knows how while trying to remain Captain Fantastic, the confident alpha male of his pack of young followers. This comedy is suddenly more nuanced, deep and interesting than I had originally expected, although it certainly deviated from the family comedy I had in mind! It requires more thinking and reflection, and I found myself chuckling appreciatively at these moments rather than laughing out loud. 

Some of the books Mortensen read to help him get into character for Captain Fantastic

Mortensen’s portrayal of Ben Cash is undeniable and riveting, tying the whole story together. However, my favourite parts were watching each of his six individual young co-stars exploring playing the children of this family with different reactions to their very unique experiences. Instead of “Jungle Boy” moments, the youths and children handled their well written characters with a believable finesse that made this film truly stand out.  

The kids from Captain Fantastic interview