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The main character in Captain Fantastic (played by Mortensen) remains fiercely unapologetic for his non-conformist lifestyle.
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The kids in Captain Fantastic - played by (from left) Crooks, Shotwell, MacKay, Hamilton, Isler and Basso - are comfortable in the wild but disconnected in every other way.

An uncompromising view of the world

Jul 15, 2016 5:50 AM

IN Captain Fantastic, a father with a back-to-nature philosophy, left-leaning politics and a strict survivalist code raises his six children way off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

They hunt wild animals together, read actual books by firelight and celebrate Noam Chomsky instead of Father Christmas. The family travels around in a beat-up school bus named Steve and - just to confirm that this is a modern-day fantasy of sorts - not one of the kids knows how to use a smartphone.

Yet, the film - written and directed by Matt Ross - is firmly rooted in reality. It just takes a radically different route in exploring a variety of popular themes such as the first kiss, talking about the birds and the bees, the effects of living in a fast-food nation and dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Is the main character's anti-establishment, latter-day hippie approach - and the wholesale imposition of those values on his children - relevant to life in the digital age?

Whatever our own opinions may be of his unorthodox parenting methods, Captain Fantastic makes an interesting and thought-provoking case, with both sides of the argument clearly laid out.

Ben Cash's (Viggo Mortensen, anchoring the film convincingly) uncompromising view of the world is based on Marxist philosophy and staunch self-sufficiency - directly at odds with living in the land of mass consumerism, the Big Mac and Coca-Cola (he calls it "poison water").

He tells it like it is to his kids, whether it's explaining human reproduction to his seven-year-old (and avid survivalist) Zaja (Shree Crooks), discussing Lolita with teenage daughter Kielyr (Samantha Isler) or accusing eldest son Bodevan (George Mackay) of selling out by secretly applying to Ivy League colleges.

The rest of the uniquely-named brood includes daughter Vespyr (Annalisse Basso), rebellious Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) and mop-haired Nai (Charlie Shotwell).

The kids are smart, have a firm grasp of general knowledge and are well-drilled in matters of fitness and teamwork. But they lack social skills and struggle to adjust to the outside world. They are comfortable in the wild but disconnected in every other way - a condition that becomes painfully obvious when they re-join with the world to attend the funeral of their mother Leslie (Trin Miller), who had been undergoing medical care in her hometown.

Leslie's father (Frank Langella) blames Ben for the mental illness that led to her suicide while her mother (Ann Dowd) takes a more measured approach in an effort to stay close to her grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Ben remains fiercely unapologetic for his non-conformist lifestyle. He swears in front of his kids, presents hunting knives to them as gifts and ropes them in as co-conspirators in a supermarket scam.

During a stopover, he emerges from the bus one morning completely naked, startling an elderly couple passing by. "It's just a p___s," he declares matter-of-factly. "Every man has one - we're all animals of the earth."

Most people would baulk - with good reason - at Ben's concept of parenting. There's even dissent among the ranks. "We're freaks," says Bodevan. "I don't know anything about anything."

But a dinner-table scene where Ben's blissfully ignorant, suburbia-dwelling nephews forgo conversation in favour of playing smartphone games makes a strong case for doing some things differently.

Captain Fantastic presents us with that alternate view in a sensitive, often charming and humorous manner. The movie's R rating prevents children from legally watching it, but grown-ups who have set ideas on the inexact art of child-rearing might learn a thing or two.

Rating: B