Behind its fanciful premise; its lush, heightened production design; and a thick, swirling cloud of ambient Sigur Rós atmospherics, Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic is an incredibly frank film.
Its musings on parenthood, adolescence, survival, modernity and society are amusing and stimulating – channelled through woodland assault courses, campfire jam sessions and a Noam Chomsky Day celebration with gifts of combat knives and hunting bows. Assured in its absurdity, Ross’ knack for cutting to the heart of themes and ideas that are ubiquitous in daily life, and then picking our preconceptions on them to pieces, makes for a movie with a light touch, but a powerful punch.
None of its myriad musings have the sticking power of its most central, though – as Ross’ screenplay faces down death and refuses to blink.
Viggo Mortensen’s Ben (the titular Captain), has been raising his children in a Plato-esque idyllic wilderness for years – cut off from society, living off the land and reading philosophy, science and classic literature in abundance. No topic is too complex it can’t be explained in straightforward terms to a child – sex, mental illness, mortal danger, and more.
Ben’s wife Leslie (Trin Miller) has been in hospital for three months receiving treatment for bipolar disorder when word reaches the commune that she has committed suicide. Ben tells his kids what has happened with medical specificity and clarity, no truths sugar-coated to soften the blow.
As Leslie’s conservative Catholic parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) move to forego their Buddhist daughter’s wishes for cremation by pushing ahead with a traditional service and burial, Ben leads his children in a quest to “save Mom” and recover his dead wife’s body to honour her wishes.
It’s at once sickly bleak and giddily ludicrous, but consistent with the rationally-minded, socialist philosophies fundamental to Ben’s character. Through Ben and his kids’ quest to rescue the corpse of their mother, Ross sparks an insightful and emotional conversation about our relationship with death – the ridiculousness of our traditions and rituals, and our inexplicable sanctification of rotting flesh and bone.
Leslie wants her ashes flushed down the toilet – without her active mind, she sees her remains as an entity entirely divorced from herself – and she wants an outdoor memorial of singing, dancing and celebration. What her parents try to give her is a eulogy by a priest who never knew her – paying tribute through guesswork and half a conversation with relatives – and a box for her body to decompose in underground, taking up valuable land.
Few people are lucky enough to say their lives have been unaffected by death – relatives and friends lost with or without reason, after bouts strung-out suffering or in moments of sudden shock. Most have attended funeral services and grieved. They may vary from culture to culture but, especially in Western society, what Leslie’s family wants to give her is starkly familiar to anyone who has sat through a typical service: about a 20- or 30-minute slot, with three pieces of music religious or otherwise, usually with readings by a professional who does half a dozen of these a day. A cremation or burial may be followed by a wake somewhere nearby. This is the suburban default against which Leslie, her husband and by extension Captain Fantastic cry ‘no!’
This is a film of exuberance, subversion, wisdom and pathos – reaching for similar aesthetic and thematic touchstones as perhaps Little Miss Sunshine or Kings of Summer. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is expected to tread similar ground when it comes out this week.
But what sets it apart is its commitment to exposing the true face of death – the biological fact that your body is not yours once you have departed, and the mundanity and insanity of our one-size-fits-all ceremonial formalities. The film finds joy in its frankness and looks forward from Leslie’s death, not backwards.
After (spoiler alert) a successful mission to recover her body, Leslie’s family gathers on a cliff by the sea and cremates her remains on a fire. Her children take up guitars, bells and drums in a euphoric reimagining of Guns ‘n Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and smiles infect the faces of all involved.
Grief is powerful and should not be belittled. It isn’t here. Leslie’s children have their time to weep and to scream at the senselessness and mercilessness with which illness took their mother away. But after, they break free of the expectation that they should be miserable as their mother is laid to rest and, instead, they sing and dance – a more fitting tribute to a woman committed to social revolution, freedom, enlightenment and equality for all.
I dare anyone to watch Captain Fantastic and see the stark contrast between the restrictive, anonymous funeral Leslie’s parents chose for her and the jubilant, unsentimental celebration of her life she chose for herself, and still say they would prefer something like the former for themselves.
To be remembered is a fundamental human desire and Leslie’s memorial ensures her life is summed up in a tribute without structure and full of personal touch. Ben and his family have to fight tooth and nail to give her that, but it doesn’t have to be that way for us.
Death comes for everyone and, when it does, it’s rarely with mercy or sentiment. There is no sense in dressing it up, but in gathering together, reflecting, celebrating, and moving forward. Of all the lessons – political, philosophical, or otherwise – that Captain Fantastic may try to preach, its musings on death are stark, frank and valuable beyond measure.