Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, directed by Berkeley resident Matt Ross, is “excellent”
, directed by Berkeley resident Matt Ross, is “excellent”

Three-quarters of the way into Captain Fantastic (opening at Landmark’s California Theater on Friday, July 22), I thought I might be watching one of 2016’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. One implausible plot development later, I wasn’t so sure — but I am convinced that Viggo Mortensen is likely to receive Oscar recognition for his lead role in this frequently excellent (if periodically absurd) new feature.

Mortensen plays the film’s title character, an off-the-grid Noam Chomsky admirer known more prosaically as Ben. With wife Leslie (Trin Miller, seen only in flashback) Ben has raised his six children in the middle of a Pacific Northwest forest, training them in survivalist techniques and teaching them about great literature, political theory, and the Bill of Rights.

What he hasn’t taught them is how to live in the ‘real world’, a problem that quickly becomes apparent when the family leaves the wilderness for a funeral in suburban New Mexico. Conflicts rapidly arise between the insular Fantastics and their ‘normal’ relatives, including Leslie’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hale), brother-in-law Dave (Steve Zahn), and father Jack (Frank Langella).

Written and directed by Berkeley resident Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is careful not to pass judgment on these competing visions of ‘the way things should be’. (Ross will be doing a Q&A in Berkeley this Friday, July 22, after the 7:05 p.m. screening of Captain Fantastic at the California Theatres at 2113 Kittredge St.) Ben is clearly a loving father, but he’s also a martinet whose parenting techniques sometimes border on child abuse; Jack has the best interests of his grandchildren at heart but is willing to use social status and wealth to make life for Ben thoroughly miserable.

Captain Fantastic is the perfect argument for a ‘Best Ensemble Cast’ Oscar, featuring excellent performances by all concerned – including its youngest thespian, spunky little Shree Crooks, who gets many of the film’s best lines as six-year-old Zaja. Instead, it’ll be Mortensen who gets the most attention — and deservedly so.

Beyond the implausible plot development (which I won’t elaborate upon further), there are a lot of ways Captain Fantastic could have gone badly wrong. It’s the sort of comedy-drama that has come to predominate the American independent film-making scene; frequently, these films are overly arch smack-downs of contemporary society (2007’s execrable Juno being a prime example). To Ross’s considerable credit, this isn’t one of those films.

‘Breaking a Monster: Unlocking the Truth’

Alec Atkins, Malcolm Brickhouse, and Jarad Dawkins are the subjects of the documentary Breaking a Monster: Unlocking the Truth

I don’t like heavy metal, but documentaries about heavy metal (e.g., The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years) are another matter. In the case of Breaking a Monster: Unlocking the Truth, the metal comes with a wrinkle: the band in front of the camera are three African-American middle-schoolers.

First exposed to metal at wrestling shows, pre-pubescents Alec Atkins, Malcolm Brickhouse and Jarad Dawkins decided to form their own band, Unlocking the Truth. Breaking a Monster (also opening at the Shattuck on Friday, and not a reference to the excellent Metallica doc, Some Kind of Monster) skims over their formative years before settling into a blow-by-blow account of their signing to Sony thanks to Welcome Back, Kotter creator Alan Sacks.

The film is clearly intended as part of the band’s current promotional drive (their debut album was released last month), but to director Luke Meyer’s credit Breaking a Monster is a few steps removed from your average band video. As precocious and talented as these lads are, we also see them being put through the music industry meat-grinder, and it ain’t pretty.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...