Hippie Family Values
Sometimes a critical darling that racks up award nominations like the overachieving brown-noser in high school doesn’t really have much to say and even less about whatever it’s trying to contribute to the world of cinema. But sometimes you have a film that offers as an excellent counterpoint to the critical darling, that tackles a similar subject with more confidence and more creativity than the former could muster. Today we have something in the latter category with a little film starring Viggo Mortensen that I can now hold up in contrast to this month’s cry fest, Manchester by the Sea.
Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six, raising his children out in the Washington wilderness in a hippie commune sort of way. He teaches them himself on various literary genres and philosophies while encouraging them to reject capitalist society. However, when his wife, Leslie, commits suicide, and his father-in-law forbids his presence at the Christian funeral (that she expressly did not want), Ben tries to get his kids to go back to their daily regiment of education and wilderness training. However, the children want to satisfy their mother’s wish for a final resting place (that I shall not spoil), and so Ben drives his kids in their family bus/trailer to complete the matriarch’s wishes. Hilarity (and sadness) ensuses.
What sucked me into the movie was the relationship Ben has with his six children, which is important because it’s the reason the film works the way it does. Ben clearly cares for his children, but is putting them through a grueling training regiment of hunting, rock climbing, yoga, emergency medical treatment, and advanced literature. While some members of his family like their arrangements, the children do push back and make their own demands of Ben. Interestingly, the father usually doesn’t speak to them as his young children but as full grown adults.
Now some people will be heavily turned off by this, but the film acknowledges this isn’t “normal” in our society. Ben and his family meet with their cousins and the differences in their lifestyles is jarring. Granted, the film tries to portray Ben and his family as the “superior” model, but the film then turns in its latter acts to show just how wrong this upbringing can be. Especially when two of his kids (George Mackay as Bo and Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian) push back against Ben’s parenting styles in somewhat expected and unexpected ways.
Actually now that I’m bringing up other actors, I should mention that everyone is doing a solid job but Mackay and Hamilton were the standouts of the young cast. They express a strong sense of rebellious youth that’s typical and yet very understandable given how Ben has been raising them all these years. Ben’s daughters (Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell) aren’t given big, standout character moments like the boys do but they each turn in a great performance. Especially from Isler, that makes a literature lesson over Lolita in the middle of the movie and she makes it seem fascinating while also illuminating how she and her siblings have been taught to think critically.
The adults in the film also give solid performances particularly from Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn (holy shit, someone found where he’s been hiding all these years). And Mortensen if freaking amazing in this. Absolutely charismatic and charming, even as strange as his life choices are, you want to follow this character because of just how devoted he is to his ideals and to the wishes of his family. But the other great performance comes from Frank Langella as Ben’s spiteful father-in-law. There’s a shit ton of nuance to his performance as he delivers nothing but open contempt for Ben upon meeting him, but reverts to kindly old grandfather upon meeting his grandchildren for the first time in his life. And while you initially think he’s going to serve as a defacto antagonist, the film treats you with respect and doesn’t go down that obvious route.
Mortensen and Langella have a great moment towards the end where Langella doesn’t get angry, but simply lays out the case for why Ben’s parenting doesn’t work. Langella sneaks in a few insults to Ben as a hippie, but makes it abundantly clear that his kids are not safe physically from him, even though he’s never struck them in their lives. And they share an extremely powerful moment at the end that was classy in all the right ways…
…and then the films turns back to the rebellious spirit in the final twenty minutes of the film. Now honestly, I can see even more people getting turned off by how everything pans out. Without wishing to spoil (Christ knows I’ve done a lot of that already), if the film has a weakness, it’s that the conclusion it ultimately comes to doesn’t feel earned. Not bad per say, but the resolution just feels very rushed. Like we missed an important moment involving these characters that would either explain everything or make the emotional connection we’re supposed to feel. Otherwise, the climax just feels straight out of a different movie.
Slightly disappointing, but I will say that this affected me a hell of a lot more than Manchester by the Sea did. The problem with Manchester is that it relies too much on melodrama seemed clinically designed to make you cry. The main story of man arranging his departed brother’s affairs was fine enough, but the movie just laid the sadness on thick with a mid-way reveal that lets you know what an absolutely horrible thing our main protagonist did to explain why he’s such a miserable bastard. And yet, I felt nothing for our protagonist in that movie or indeed any character there. But I gave a shit about Ben and his children in Captain Fantastic so what’s the difference?
Well besides having a healthy dose of comedy, Captain Fantastic feels more like a celebration of fallen family member’s life rather than some grim reminder of what our protagonists could never attain. Captain Fantastic isn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects like suicide, death and family drama but the characters felt three-dimensional and complicated rather than one tragically complex character and a bunch of quirky serious characters as in Manchester. It may come down to personal preference when it comes to coping with grief, but I found Captain Fantastic to be the superior film in handling the subject of surviving family members dealing with the loss of a loved one even though it’s far less grounded in reality.
My penchant for the absurd and the weird may explain my connection to the movie, but I’d easily recommend this film. Even to my conservative readers who will definitely not agree with Ben’s lifestyle and philosophy, it’s still a fascinating journey to be a part of. While the ending was a tad on the weak side, I’m going to give this a low…