Captain Fantastic is about the fantasy of being able to create a perfect world for your children, and the crushing realization that such control is ultimately impossible. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) pursues this ideal in a particularly extreme way – by removing his family from society altogether and creating his own little utopia in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
We meet the family in the midst of a hunt. They’re all covered in camouflaging mud. The eldest, Bo (George MacKay), slaughters an animal, and Ben tells him that he is a man now. Primitive though the ritual may be, this family is not. Far from it. They are survivalist philosopher kings – highly educated and extremely self-sufficient.
Ranging in age from single digits to late teens, the six children, Nai (Charlie Shotwell), Zaja (Shree Crooks), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton, who resembles young River Phoenix), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Bo have been molded in Ben’s very specific image. And, for the most part, they worship their father and their lifestyle – Noam Chomsky day and all.
The casting director should win an award for finding these truly excellent young performers, who shine alongside the always wonderful Mortensen.
But the cracks are starting to show in this little family unit, and not just because normal hormones and attitudes are emerging.
“I’m not a Trotskyist any more. I’m a Maoist!” Bo says in an angsty teenage huff at one point.
No, there is something more serious festering. Their mother, Leslie (Trin Miller), has been away for three months, hospitalized with severe depression. The kids miss her dearly, and her absence is becoming an issue. But we never get the chance to really meet her. Ben finds out early in the film that she’s killed herself.
He tells the kids this fact very frankly. Ben never lies to his children. He trusts that they can handle the truth, whether it’s the circumstances of their mother’s death and mental illness or the littlest one asking what rape is.
The death forces the family out of their little paradise and into the real world to attend her funeral in Arizona – even though Leslie’s grieving father Jack (Frank Langella) has threatened to arrest Ben if he shows up. But, c’mon. It’s their mother. Of course they’re going to go.
“Grandpa can’t oppress us!” the youngest exclaims.
So, they pack up their rickety green school bus and venture down from their ivory tower to go south, into the depths of the America that Ben hates. The younger ones have been so sheltered that they’ve never heard of Coke or Nike, or seen an obese person. Things get especially tense when they meet Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her family and disrupt their suburban normalcy.
While the kids seem happy, all outsiders are pretty much in agreement that Ben is unfit to parent. Unlike Harrison Ford’s unsympathetic Mosquito Coast protagonist, however, Ben clearly loves his family deeply and genuinely thinks that his way is the best way. This struggle between the individual parent and society’s expectations is one without an easy resolution. Both are right and wrong.
The film veers into cloying sentimentality a little too often, and, some might tire of Ben’s philosophies. But, that also just means that there’s room for his character to grow too.
Captain Fantastic is the second feature from writer-director Matt Ross (his first was the affair drama “28 Rooms), who is currently best known for his acting. In addition to over two decades in the movies, Ross plays the tech titan Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley. I imagine a film of the caliber of Captain Fantastic is bound to change that – this is no flash in the pan success. It’s a single, beautifully realized vision with edge and a true heart.