Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2016 11:03 pm 
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Nicholas Hamilton (Rellian), Annalise Basso (Vespyr), Samantha Isler (Kielyr), George MacKay (Bo), Viggo Mortensen (Ben)

Figuring out how to live

The fresh, thought-provoking new movie Captain Fantastic is more than anything an explosion of energy. In it, a big domineering powerhouse of a man with a beard is running a lively family of six young kids like a wolf pack in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They do everything, including kill and strip deer - the ritual of manhood performed by the eldest boy, Bodevan (English actor George MacKay) in the stunning opening scene. They slip from wild tribe to solemn house-on-the-prairie cooperation, putting off their war paint and raising plants, making and selling stuff, doing intensive and serious studying of books. Writer-director Matt Ross, an actor known for TV's "Big Love" and "Silicon Valley" whose own mother started communes when he was young, overloads his story with ideas and possibilities: this is a compendium of all that might happen in an idealistic antiestablishment single-family unit. There's the yoga too, and the intensive rock climbing. And at night, after reading Dostoevsky and George Eliot, they get out their instruments and turn into a band. Could all this even happen?

The kids are a motley crew. Sometimes the younger ones stand out for a minute with a Marxist slogan or a recitation of astonishing political knowledge. But mostly just the two older boys, Bo and his smaller brother Rellian (Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton), who resembles River Phoenix or a young Leo DiCaprio, emerge clearly. This works, somehow: the six young actors simply pulsate with life as a family unit. At the head of them is their chieftain, guru, tutor, boss and dad, Ben (Viggo Mortensen). It's a crazy, idealistic venture he's engaged in, and in Matt Ross's movie he is going to be sorely tested - but he is not going to be allowed to fail. And this is the great weakness of the story but also its beauty. It pulsates not only with energy but with hope.

The ideas, the ideals, the training, and the energy of this remarkable family unit are more impressive than the plot, which is a bit of a red herring, though it is another display of this little band's "contra mundum" life. What happens is that their mother is severely bipolar and while away for treatment, kills herself. Her wealthy father Jack (Frank Langella, formidable as usual), who lives in a grand house in New Mexico, disapproves of Ben anyway and thinks he's responsible for his daughter's death. He won't even let Ben come to his wife's funeral, and while her wish as a Buddhist was to be cremated, plans go ahead to bury her. So it becomes a battle to get her cremated anyway, and to oppose Jack's will to take over the raising of the kids.

Underneath this is another drama of rebellion. Rellian is harboring adolescent revolt - though in the survival mode in which the family lives there's not much time for that, and it only emerges clearly when he spends time at his grandfather's house. And Bo has secretly applied to colleges: the intensity of his home schooling and survival training has gotten him acceptance letters from Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Dartmouth, MIT and Brown (another sign of Matt Ross's enthusiasm and lack of restraint). This is what happened in Sidney Lumet's wonderful 1988 film Running on Empty, whose older son (River Phoenix) adores his radical family on the run but is pulled away by the need to be with the young woman he falls for (Martha Plimpton) and to go to Juilliard to nurture his exceptional musical gifts.

Captain Fantastic burns with idealistic intensity but it laughs at its own absurdity, as when the family, who ignore Christmas, haul out portraits and symbols to celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday. The best scenes are when the kids come into shocking contact with everyday America, as when Bo kisses a cute girl he meets on the road (Erin Moriarty) and is so green he instantly wants to marry her; or when they see blimp-like middle-Americans or encounter the ordinarily bratty sons of their uncle Dave (Steve Zahn). This movie isn't so much about people and events as about society and ideas about how to live. In that it's like a movie by Yorgos Lanthimos, like Lobster - except it pulsates not with cruel cleverness but with love of life and a passion for finding the best way to raise children. Captain Fantastic is the second great American feature of the summer, after Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship.

Captain Fantastic, 118 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016, also played at Cannes in Un Certain Regard where it won the Best Director award; nine other international festivals. US theatrical release began 8 July 2016 (San Francisco 16 July).

Watched at Kabuki Sundance in San Francisco 16 July 2016, followed by a Q&A with the writer/director.


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