FILM REVIEW: Captain Fantastic

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Captain Fantastic is a feel-good film akin to indie-titan, sleeper hits such as Little Miss Sunshine and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s charming, heartwarming and tells the tale of a progressive couple’s utopian vision of what the world could be.

A large family, consisting of six children and their father Ben Cash (played by Viggo Mortensen), live in the middle of absolute wilderness. They hunt for their food, they communally climb mountains, they sleep under the stars, they read avidly and drop Marxist ideology casually into conversation. They don’t celebrate Christmas (instead opting for “Noam Chomsky’s Birthday), and spend their days critiquing the capitalist, materialistic ways of living that are adopted in mainstream society.

This is a community of highly intelligent and subversive youths who are aware that they live in relative squalor, but prefer the notion of this to living like everybody else. It’s quite the unusual narrative because they allude to a world beyond the woods and aren’t sheltered from the knowledge that they’re different but there’s no sense of desire for that mode of life, even with the awareness that it exists. What I like about this film, and this seems particularly apt given our current COVID-19 situation, is that provides a glimpse of a simpler and kinder world where people aren’t lost in their phones and connections are forged through physical interaction.

The film begins with the ritualistic ceremony of manhood, performed in the middle of a forest. Following a successful game-hunt, Bodevan Cash, the eldest sibling (played by George MacKay), is crowned in glory with his younger siblings watching on as he consumes the raw organs of his catch (as dictated by his father). They head back to their home, essentially a patch in the woodlands that they’ve occupied with scarce belongings before gathering together to eat the food they’ve caught and cooked themselves, before bursting into spontaneous song, with each child playing their own instruments. The next morning, Bodevan and Ben head out to the local town to collect their mail and pick up some supplies. It is during this trip that Ben discovers his wife, a lifelong victim of Bipolar disorder, has passed away in hospital after a successful suicide attempt.

When their world is turned upside down by the unexpected death of their mother, the family are thrust into a powerful collision with the “real world” . Hearing that a conventional and religious funeral has been arranged (by their grandparents) for their free-spirited, Buddhist mother, the children force Ben into a wicked scheme to sabotage the ceremony and give her the send-off she would have wanted.

There’s a dark comedic element that literally encourages you to laugh out loud during the most uncomfortable scenes and perhaps this is because of Mortensen and his quiet charm as the rugged founding father of the community. Mortensen captures the conflicting shades of Ben’s personality as a really protective, loving and sometimes overbearing father. There’s so many scenes that make your chest all warm and fuzzy, with the family sticking together through thick and thin. The beauty of this film is in the simplicity of its narrative. This family deal with the impact of grief and loss, as they reconcile with an extended family who have a prickly response to the lifestyle choices that Ben has made, and sustained by indoctrinating his children. It’s a testing experience and brings to the surface some tensions between the siblings, as well as the ideologies they’ve accepted their whole lives.

Honestly? I’m so glad I found this on Netflix and I cannot recommend it enough to all those who are currently living in quarantined conditions. I don’t have a fixed list of favourite movies but I can say, without a doubt, that it’d be in the top 5. Captain Fantastic is filled with strong performances by a talented cast, and powerful commentaries on the way we live in modern society.

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FILM REVIEW: JoJo Rabbit

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I remember seeing the trailer for Jojo Rabbit and thinking: ‘I definitely need to catch that film as soon as its released’ yet simultaneously, my enthusiasm was somewhat dulled by my confusion at Waititi’s involvement with the Marvel canon.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t think it was bad. I was just wary of the fact that Hollywood had snatched him up and was potentially grooming him for future blockbuster projects, whilst in the process distancing him from his indie origins and quirky stylistic traits. Was this film going to be an attempt to show the world he’s still the same indie director at heart? And if so, was it going to work after the taste of sweet, prolific success with the big Hollywood blockbuster? I was cynical, to say the least, but found myself browsing through the plethora of inclusive movies on the 9-hour flight to Atlanta and clicking on JoJo Rabbit to watch on my tiny seat-screen.

This was not a choice I came to regret.

The film, based on the novel Caging Skies, sees protagonist young Johannes a.k.a Jojo (Roman Griffin Davies) as a fanatical Hitler Youth with an imaginary friend in the form of none other than Adolf Hitler himself (portrayed by Waititi). The opening scene sees Johannes and his hype-beast/substitute father-figure Hitler enthusiastically preparing for the first day of enrolment at a local Hitlerjugend camp, a ceremonious coming-of-age milestone for Johannes. His single mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) is an encouraging force in the house, her colourful character brightens every scene in which she’s featured with her animated expressions and quick wit. With her well-wishes, brimming with excitement and accompanied by his “best friend” Yorki (Archie Yates), Johannes starts the journey of a lifetime in his pursuit of his Nazi dream.

The Hitlerjungend camp is portrayed as a comical Boy Scout operation, as opposed to a manufacturer of lethal and prejudiced killing machines. The children are led by a disillusioned Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his second-in-command/sidekick Finkel (Alfie Allen). The innocence of childhood is captured in its full glory against the dismal backdrop of a Nazi-infested Germany. The first part of the film highlights the glibness of young boys, having a laugh whilst simultaneously training to handle weapons and kill Jews. There’s lots of throwing grenades, kids accidentally stabbing themselves and the classic coming-of-age trope that sees older bullies preying on the timid kids who have just started out.

In a desperate bid to prove himself to the higher ranks as a brave and uncompromising Nazi soldier, Johannes winds up having a very unfortunate accident which sees him suspended from action. Essentially under house arrest during recovery and bored out of his head, with no training camp to occupy his days, Johannes’ whole world is turned upside down upon discovering his mother’s well-kept secret: a stowaway Jewish girl (Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie) living in a cavern behind his dead sister’s bedroom wall.

Their companionship is at the heart of this bildungsroman. With this meeting in-person, Johannes’ beliefs about Jewish folk are challenged by Elsa. Johannes seeks “Jew secrets” and decides to produce an effective guide on how to catch Jews, based on understanding the way that they think. Elsa sardonically responds to his interrogations and the two become unlikely companions, despite their adversities and differing perspectives on the world.

Difficult as it may be to believe, what with all the anti-Semitism and fascism, the film is a humorous delight. I did see that a version of the trailer had to actually declare that the film was a satire, as though that weren’t obvious enough, which does mean that there are people out there who may have actually understood this to be a film that genuinely promotes fascist values. I mean, come on. Adolf Hitler is literally being satirised from the onset and would be rolling in his grave, upon hearing that a Polynesian fella called Taika Waititi is playing/ridiculing him.

In between the laughs, there’s a series of complicated and beautiful relationships between the intimate cast. There’s the tenderness between Rosie’s role as a conflicted mother and her extremist, whilst very naive, son Jojo. Then the protective fatherly-figure in Captain Klenzendorf, who offers a steady stream of quips and wit, but seems to have a genuine soft-spot for Jojo (despite his generally apathetic attitude towards the training camp and all the boys involved). At the heart of the film there’s the pressing heartache of a young girl who has presumably lost all living family and friends, and is now forced to live on

An impressively nuanced performance by Davies, merely 12 years old with the capability of portraying emotional maturity beyond his years, leads this film into my list of 2020 favourites. I can officially tick ‘weeping on a full-capacity plane during a 9-hour journey’ off my bucket-list because there were definitely a few moments where I was repressing the overwhelming desire to blubber away. By the end of the movie, I was impressed (to say the least) and deeply grateful that I had ignored some of the more cynical reviews prior to award season.

Waititi perfectly captures the dreamlike world of childhood and then depicts the inevitable shattering of that world, as the war erupts. The event for which Johannes has passionately prepared is far more visceral and chaotic than he could ever have expected: running through the rubble and the fog of gunpowder smoke with bombs booming in the distance, the kid is lost and overwhelmed. Possessing the signature quirkiness and wit of Waititi’s classic humour, there are unexpectedly powerful moments of the sweet and sad persuasion scattered in between.