As family road movies of the off-beat, Sundance ilk go, Captain Fantastic is a standout, zigging whenever indie convention dictates it should zag, offering a fresh rendition of an old formula. Writer-director Matt Ross follows a clan of six children living deep in the lush forests of Oregon, led by their charismatic father, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), an outdoorsman/philosopher who’s built them a life of hunting, gathering and book-fueled enlightenment, disentangled from societal norms and unplugged from the digital world altogether.
Ross explores the friction between Cash’s off-the-grid credo and their extended family’s decidedly “real-world,” all-American way of life via scenarios that occasionally lack nuance but are nevertheless sharp and thought-provoking and dovetail nicely into and out of each other, making for an intellectually stimulating yet wholly approachable tale of family dysfunction and adventure.
The story opens with a sensually shot rite of passage: Ben’s eldest, 17-year-old Bodevan (George MacKay), has just hunted down and slaughtered his first deer, butchering the animal with his bare hands and a sharp blade. The rest of the family gathers, each of them covered in muddy camouflage from head to toe as their patriarch presents the young man with a trophy as he solemnly chomps on a chunk of the beast’s heart. Through rigorous “training,” Ben has raised his children to be super survivalists and “philosopher kings,” teaching them the fundamentals of hand-to-hand combat one day, celebrating the life and teachings of Noam Chomsky the next.
The children are, in many ways, utterly extraordinary. Bodevan has recently abandoned the principles of Trotskyism and redefined himself as a Maoist; the youngest daughter, Zaja (Shree Crooks), has the entire Bill of Rights memorized and even has deep opinions on recent shifts in U.S. legislature. Teen daughters Vespyr (Annalise Basso) and Kielyr (Samantha Isler) are real-life Katniss Everdeens, while the littlest sibling, Nai (Charlie Shotwell), is an avid collector of animal skulls. Ben’s clearly developed a tight bond with all of his children, though brooding middle child Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) seems to be suppressing a measure of deep-seated resentment.
Rellian’s bitterness stems from the absence of the children’s mother, who returned to the outside world to seek psychiatric care following a mental breakdown. She and Ben built the family’s unconventional life together, but Rellian blames his father for driving her away. When the family is devastated by tragic news involving their beloved matriarch, they pile into their family bus (it’s decorated like a hippie food truck, brimming with books and camping gear) to embark on a road trip on which their unique way of life is threatened from all angles. Ben’s parenting tactics have undoubtedly made the kids strong, but perhaps he’s blind to the fact that giving them combat knives as presents and sending them on unlawful “missions” to rob grocery stores needlessly endangers their lives.
The greatest virtue of Ross’ approach is his approach characterization. The Cash family aren’t portrayed as overly culty or creepily alien, nor do they come off as a picture of saccharine togetherness. They exist somewhere in the middle, with each family member dealing with their own internal struggles as their moral fiber is tested both from within and without.
Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn play relatives who are repulsed by the bubble Ben’s sheltered the children in and do their best to pop it. It’s in these encounters when the movie begins to feel too generic and binary: The kids’ suburban cousins are spoiled, mean-spirited, uneducated brats who are too heavy-handedly polar opposite and don’t provide an interesting moral contrast to the main characters because they’re so overtly one-dimensional. The best culture clash comes when Bodevan meets a girl in a trailer park and realizes that, while he’s probably as learned and politically aware as any 17-year-old on the planet, he’s woefully inept in the art of normal, fun-loving teenage interaction of the opposite-sex variety.
On paper, Captain Fantastic has its high and low points. The core strength of the film, the true backbone of the thing, is Mortensen, a spellbinding leading man who’s got as firm a grip on the audience as his character does on his brood. He sells and sells and sells, and we buy, buy, buy; every idea Ben projects onto his kids, even the zany ones, sound perfectly logical when spoken by a voice so even and wise and alluring. He’s so convincing that when he finally comes to the realization that he may actually be a much bigger threat to his children’s health and safety than capitalism, smartphones or even Kanye West and the Kardashians, our hearts break for him.
A family of survivalist philosophers rail against the real world in Matt Ross' spellbinding, thought-provoking road drama.