On Captain Fantastic

I’m usually one to let a movie simmer in my mind for at least a few hours before delivering an assessment of it. I like to hear others’ opinions and to have a few discussions about a film first, and only then do I decide upon its merits. But when my husband leaned over to ask what I thought as the credits rolled for Captain Fantastic, I was able to deliver the simple, precise review that I loved it. Captain Fantastic is, quite simply, one of the most satisfying dramas I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time.

My interest was initially piqued by a trailer showcasing the pristine wooded setting, an Oregon forest where Viggo Mortenson’s character Ben raises his six children completely off the grid, providing them with rigorous mental and physical “training.” Ben’s comprehensive version of unofficial homeschooling involves things as varied as Buddhist meditation, daily runs through the woods, a close reading of all the literary classics, hunting skills, a strong yoga practice, knowledge of how to set a broken bone, and the ability to carry on philosophical debate, just to name a few. The result is a vibrant, close-knit family unit, one whose members are highly educated critical thinkers, shunners of the capitalism and consumerism that define the mainstream culture they despise, and self-reliant outdoorsmen. The children not only subscribe to Ben’s way of raising them, they thrive under it, demonstrating mastery of high intellectual concepts and enviable physical prowess.

Writer-director Matt Ross introduces audiences to his characters with countless scenes of Ben and his children going through their typical daily routine. In fact, he devotes a large portion of the first act of the film to simply showcasing the utterly unconventional lifestyle of this family. But Ross’ arduous efforts never grow tiresome or boring. We see the children run through gorgeous, untouched forests; we bear witness to Bo, the oldest of Ben’s kids, kill his first deer, which his younger siblings then proceed to dismember; we watch as the children eagerly read classic novels and philosophical texts, delivering thoughtful opinions on them to their father; we view scenes of meditation circles, dinners made over a campfire, and jam sessions in which every family member fully contributes to the musical cacophony they collectively create. These scenes of family life feel absolutely idyllic, set against the background of the pristine Pacific Northwest wilderness and colored by the delightfully mismatched patchwork clothing worn by the family. It’s hard to resist the pull of the life that Ben has so carefully constructed for his children.

But at times, it almost feels as though Ross is trying to convince his audience that Ben has made a good choice in raising his children this way. The ideology which motivated Ben to forge such a path with his kids is made evidently clear from the way he constantly talks about modern society, government, and the like, to the way in which his children speak of various economic, religious, and political systems. And Ross takes advantage of every opportunity in which the plot allows Ben’s children to show off their smarts. Undoubtedly, the children’s degree of knowledge and intelligence surpasses that of most other children their age educated in traditional school settings, as well as that of many adults viewing the film too. While I certainly didn’t mind getting so many glimpses of this strange and wonderful world, Ross really didn’t have to try so hard to get me on his protagonist’s side; I was hooked on this lifestyle from pretty early on in the film. But once Ben’s parenting decisions are thrown into question, it becomes clear why Ross found it necessary to push them so heavily on us at the outset.

The real crux of the plot is centered around events related to the children’s mother Leslie which force them out of their woodland home. We understand that she was fully on board with the way that Ben is currently raising their children. And early on in the film, her absence is explained in a conversation that alludes to her residing in some sort of medical institution. In time, audiences come to find that her parents, particularly her father (winningly portrayed by Frank Langella), denied her agency in deciding to raise their grandchildren as she and her husband did. These frictions within the family, as well as those with the children’s aunt (played by Kathryn Hahn), uncle (portrayed by Steve Zahn), and cousins, are both opportunities to showcase the humorous way that living apart from society can lead to mishaps in social interaction and circumstances when big questions about how to balance one’s ideals with the demands of society, about how best to raise a child, and about what types of experiences are the most important ones to provide children are raised – and never clearly answered. It is when Ben is forced to take his family out of their paradisal home and into the wider world that these questions come to the forefront, leaving me with the type of ambivalence and uncertainty that only great stories can evoke.

These heavy questions, however, are tempered with brilliant moments of levity, many of them unexpected. It is this balance that makes the movie so compelling. Once the first third of the film documenting the daily life of Ben and company in the woods is through, the movie grows more dramatic and a bit darker. But the change in tone never feels jarring as Ross undercuts difficult scenes by following them up with hilarious moments ranging from a teenage son not understanding social conventions and references after receiving his first kiss to children breaking out into song as though they were traveling Christian evangelists to throw others off their scent. I found the humor in the movie surprising but well-placed, unusual but satisfying. Much of this is owed to Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben. Never one to take himself too seriously, nor afraid to show his true nature in front of his children, Ben often reacts to distressing situations with grace and a light temperament, endearing himself to audiences as a principled and loving, if unconventional, father. The film provides a portrait of parenthood that is ultimately appealing and enviable, despite Ben’s missteps and socially unacceptable decisions. Again, it’s all about balance, and Mortenson is able to find the sweet spot that makes his complicated character work.

While Mortenson’s performance supports the film immeasurably, I would be remiss not to give due credit to the young actors for their brilliant portrayals of his children. It’s pretty remarkable to see such strong performances across the board in a film with six young actors playing characters aged six to eighteen years old. Writer-director Ross also deserves a nod here too; in the space of 119 minutes, all six of the children were considerably well-developed characters, each with their own singular personalities, aptitudes, obstacles, and interests. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could easily develop a particular feel for each child’s storyline in under two hours of running time. The eldest son Bo, portrayed by George MacKay (who was also excellent in The Boys Are Back), struggles with relating to others outside his family unit, particularly females, and with deciding upon whether and where to attend college. Meanwhile the youngest daughter Zaja has many unanswered questions about sex that her father is not afraid to answer frankly, to Zaja’s horror and revulsion. Rellian, the second oldest son, has the most difficulty accepting his father’s decisions and, as a young adolescent, has just as much trouble figuring out how to channel that rage and confusion. Each child feels nuanced and real, a true feat given the size of this cast.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a real treat of a film, a continually surprising and constantly thought-provoking drama about family life unlike much of anything I’ve ever seen before. You’ll find yourself drawn into a remarkably enticing world, lured by compelling performances all around, only to later question all that you thought you believed. Ross’s ability to effortlessly twist the story, and viewers’ answers to the questions it raises, is a feat the likes of which I haven’t experienced in the theater for some time. I’m fascinated by every element of this film, from the actors’ performances to the writing and dialogue, from the gorgeous setting to the way Ross had me laughing and thinking hard and crying in such quick succession. This movie stands as a great example of independent filmmaking at its very best.

 

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On Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey is quickly working his way to the top of my favorite actors list. During my formative years, he starred in a number of less-reputable films that I loved (How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days and The Wedding Planner, anyone?) although with age, I came to realize how frivolous and silly those movies were. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy indulging in them from time to time, but it certainly lowered my estimation of Mr. McConaughey.

Enter the year 2013 and Matthew McConaughey blew me away in Mud, playing the title character, an outlaw who befriends two young boys in an effort to outrun the authorities with the love of his life in tow. Following on the heels of that Oscar-worthy performance is another McConaughey movie with lots of Oscar buzz: Dallas Buyers Club. And I’m back on team McConaughey again.

Once again McConaughey takes the lead, this time portraying Ron Woodroof, Texas rodeo junkie, open homophobe, and drug-addict who discovers he has contracted HIV and is given a mere 30 days to live. But this isn’t the world of today, when public knowledge of HIV and AIDS is widespread, when people understand how the virus is spread. This is 1985, the year when Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis is revealed, when the disease is grossly misunderstood by the public and even the medical community, when the term “HIV” is equated with homosexual behavior in everyone’s minds.

Remarkably enough, Woodroof outlives those 30 days after self-medicating with non-FDA-approved pills. A longtime illicit drug user, Woodroof has no qualms about obtaining illegal substances through criminal means. When he discovers that AZT, the highly coveted drug in the preliminary stages of human testing in the US, is toxic to the human body, he turns to other medications popular among HIV patients outside the states. Connecting with a network of patients through Rayon, an HIV-positive transvestite Ron meets in the hospital, the formerly homophobic man capitalizes upon his discovery and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, an outlet for the alternative HIV/AIDS treatments Woodroof has smuggled into the states. Instead of illegally selling medication directly to the people, the club’s clientele purchases a monthly membership with which they are granted unlimited access to Woodroof’s drugs. This enterprising plan entangles Woodroof with the FDA but also provides an audience and a platform for his campaign to end AZT drug trials at the local hospital.

The change in Woodroof’s attitude toward gay people is subtle and well played; he certainly capitalizes upon the sheer volume of homosexuals infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, but his motive with the buyers club is not financial success, it is to help improve and prolong the lives of others suffering from the disease. One of the most notable scenes in the film comes when Woodroof is at the height of his reign with the club. While grocery shopping with Rayon, Ron runs into TJ, a homophobic friend from his Rodeo days. TJ refuses to shake Rayon’s hand after the two are introduced. Quickly confining TJ in a headlock, Woodroof forces his old buddy to shake hands with his new transvestite friend. Throughout the entire scene, it’s clear that TJ thinks his initial suspicion that Ron was a closeted gay man are confirmed, for here he is with a cross-dressing man in public. But with a beautiful selflessness and confidence, Woodroof coolly avoids clarifying the nature of his relationship with Rayon to TJ. It’s as though Ron wouldn’t dare deign to correct his old friend’s false assumption because Ron himself is so far past that form of bigotry and hate. His only concern is that Rayon be treated with the basic decency any human being deserves. It was the kind of scene that really stuck with me, and I imagine it will be the one that defines this film whenever I think of it in the future.

Did I mention that the whole movie is based on a true story? It’s a pretty remarkable story at that, but the fact that this film recounts a series of historical events is what leads to its most glaring (but still, not very glaring at all) flaw: the ending of the movie left something to be desired. Obviously this isn’t a film deserving of a neat and tidy happy ending, given the content. Things are a little jumpy as the film nears its conclusion and viewers don’t get a clear view of what happens to the Dallas Buyers Club itself or how Woodroof’s fight against the FDA contributes to eventual changes in HIV treatment. The trouble is that the story of the fight against HIV/AIDS is so much bigger than Ron Woodroof, but his relatively small vignette is so interesting as to be film-worthy. A valiant effort is made to provide a satisfying ending when the story turns to questions of how to live the one life we’re each given. Under the auspices of the movie’s tagline “dare to live,” Woodroof talks with his doctor regarding his doubts about the way he lived his life. The content of this conversation comes back into play during the final scenes of the movie, an attempt at providing audiences with a satisfactorily happy ending to Woodroof’s difficult story.

McConaughey’s performance in this film is fantastic, quite separate from the dramatic physical transformation he went through to look the role of an HIV patient. Casting Jared Leto as Rayon was a bold and brilliant move. It took me some time to recognize Leto as Rayon because his performance completely lacked the self-consciousness I would have expected from a straight male playing a transvestite. Jennifer Garner is Dr. Eve Saks, one of the physicians overseeing the AZT trials who grows close to her patients and finds herself morally confused regarding the apparent results of the trial. Steve Zahn is notable as Tucker, a local cop who knows Woodroof and pops up from time to time when he comes into trouble with the law. There are plenty of other familiar faces throughout the movie, but McConaughey and Leto truly take the cake on this one. I’m not sure how often I’ll be overcome with a desire to re-watch this film, but I certainly would have regretted missing this one with such remarkable performances of a complicated but artfully-told story.