***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language and brief graphic (male full frontal) nudity)
Released: July 8, 2016 limited; expands July 29
Runtime: 118 minutes
Director: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Cooks, Charlie Shotwell
Most people, to some degree or other, have wondered what it’d be like to just pick up their family, move out into the woods and live off the grid, separated from the chaos and insanity of the modern world. To raise kids on your own terms, according to your own ideals. Maybe there’s a longing to be challenged, or for simplicity, or perhaps some people harbor Little House on the Prairie type fantasies. (I have a hunch a few of my friends do.)
Captain Fantastic is about a man who’s actually gone for it, forging a one-family commune with his wife and six kids in the forests of Washington state for nearly twenty years. Yet for all the discipline and sacrifice it requires, you begin to wonder if this guy is really on to something…that is, until he isn’t. In tragic, heartbreaking ways.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is clearly a far left liberal – he leads his family in annual Noam Chomsky Day celebrations while ignoring Christmas – but he’s far from the hippy dippy variety. Ben is an intellectual. His views are born of a humble respect for the mind, the body, and the earth; he’s not a flaky tree hugger or sappy vegan (as the bloody knife-hunts for deer attest).
His kids’ education is not being neglected either. On the contrary, he’s created a sort of Harvard-level homeschool where even his youngest kids could intimidate most college grads, even those with honors. Ben’s intellectual and physical training is rigorous, ongoing, all encompassing, and it involves all aspects of life (not just book knowledge). No subject is off limits for any child of any age (nor is any word use, including profanity, so long as it’s not used with disrespect). If a question exists, no kid is too young to have it answered truthfully, or to have it discussed. Engagement is both factual and philosophical. The goal is not just knowledge but understanding and wisdom.
But for as much as Ben is certain that he and his wife Leslie have formed a utopia, writer/director Matt Ross allows his film to be more honest than a romanticized wish fulfillment. Captain Fantastic is neither an idealized presentation of this admirable endeavor nor a full-fledged indictment of its dangers. Instead, it’s sort of an open-minded case study of what positive things could be learned from such unorthodox extremes while still portraying the toxic, even abusive, results of such an ideological / isolationist cocktail.
Things come to a head when a family tragedy strikes, one that (as the film unfolds) we learn possibly could’ve been avoided had Ben’s ways not been so extreme. This causes the Cashes to go on a road trip down south, taking an old school bus that they’ve custom RV’d. They visit estranged family and reconnect with others along the way. Through the trek, we continue to see the benefits and pitfalls of the life that Ben has built for his family, but the drawbacks become more striking in the most fundamental sense: Ben’s kids may be vastly smarter and more fit than any of their peers, but they’re not prepared to interact with anyone in the real world, let alone live in it.
I don’t know how much Viggo Mortensen may personally empathize with or respect Ben’s choices, but he gives a performance that is absolutely all-in. Mortensen portrays Ben with 100% conviction, not with an underlying hint of mental dysfunction or emotional bitterness. Ben is a man completely self-aware and of a right mind. Thoughtful, patient, even magnanimous.
Sure, he can also get pretty self-righteous at times, but that trait is hardly the sole purview of societal outliers. Mortensen’s Ben is, in many respects, an inspiring figure…but then, in very truthful ways, he’s also a repulsive one. To Mortensen’s credit, he never makes it due to anger, resentment, or even intentional abuse. Simply put, Ben’s blind to it (which is his arrogance). It’s the result of not living around peers that could offer guidance and counsel, and help him see the errors he’s missing.
The kid ensemble is phenomenally talented from first to last. The oldest, played by George MacKay, is the most featured, but a great deal of emotional depth and spontaneity is required of them all, and each rises to the challenge. There is a lot of budding talent here. Recent Tony winner Frank Langella plays Ben’s rightfully angry father-in-law, and his confrontations with Ben – while heated (even threatening) – are morally sound. Credit to both Langella as an actor and Ross as a director that this role was not reduced to a cranky old short-sighted traditionalist. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn also bring dramatic weight and nuance as Ben’s sister and brother-in-law, in scenes that become particularly charged.
The story’s final stretch is the only section I question. It stays true to all of the characters involved, so it’s not illogical – but it is improbable, especially given the weight of events that preceded it, and key decisions that were made. The resolution feels so close to a wish fulfillment that I was waiting for some shoe to drop, or learn perhaps that Ben was simply dreaming it. Who knows, maybe he was, but from what Ross gives us it’s all to be taken at face value.
It’s a minor lapse in narrative integrity, but not enough to undercut the movie as a whole. Indeed, this is the work of a vital new filmmaker with a lot of ideas, yet he’s not actually new to the industry. Matt Ross is a character actor known primarily for smarmy power-hungry type roles on shows like HBO’s Big Love and Silicon Valley. I never would’ve pegged him for something this substantial, fascinating, and deeply affecting (lifted further by a score from Sigur Ros / Jonsi collaborator, composer Alex Somers). Matt Ross’s future as a storyteller promises to be an exciting one.
Captain Fantastic may ultimately be an ironic title, but only by half. There’s some pretty fantastic things about Ben, and about the kids he’s raised, too. But in the end, families cannot be anthropological experiments. We’re not raising soldiers, or robots, or even little versions of ourselves. We’re raising unique individuals. We need to help them find their way, not just ours.