Director and actor Matt Ross took a bold risk when he decided to title his sophomore directorial feature film Captain Fantastic. As we all know, a title with such a confrontationally celebratory and seemingly self-indulgent name is bound to be a stationary target for critics to decry it as the opposite. In this case, however, the name is a well-deserved badge for a fabulous film.
Starring Viggo Mortensen as the intellectual ex-professor Ben Cash, the story follows Ben and his six children who reside somewhere off-the-grid in the Pacific Northwest. Amongst the lush greenery, Ben and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have elaborate plans to raise their brood separated from what they deem to be the toxicity that is bred into mainstream society. The technology-free home serves as a place of education for the children — there, they are homeschooled and thoroughly educated on subjects ranging from Noam Chomsky (they celebrate his birthday as a holiday, but don’t celebrate Christmas), Marxism, foreign languages, classic literature, and music, among other worthwhile topics such as quantum theory. In addition to their rigorous mental training, the rugged patriarch puts his children through grueling physical training on a daily basis, exposing them to the elements, hunting, and other skills that are necessary for surviving in nature.
The plot’s catalyst is when Leslie, who we are never introduced to except via Ben’s hallucinatory, dreamlike states, takes her own life in the hospital where she’d been kept for months due to mental illness. After her death, Ben receives a phone call from Leslie’s father, Jack (Frank Langella), threatening to have Ben arrested if he attends his wife’s funeral. But of course, what kind of movie would it be if that didn’t encourage the Cash clan to pack up the school bus (converted to an RV), crash the funeral in loud, vibrant attire as their mother would have wished, and, as they like to call it, “stick it to the man.” The story really takes off from there, though I won’t say much else as to avoid spoilers.
The premise sounds overdone, even clichéd to an extent, and far too “Shangri-la” to be interesting to anyone other than a homemade-granola-eating hippie living in a teepee, and that’s kind of what I thought as I was going into the theater beforehand. To be totally honest, I was there because, as a diehard Lord of the Rings fanatic, I wanted an excuse to stare at a bearded, mud-covered Viggo Mortensen for 120 minutes (if that’s your only reason for watching, let it be known that it is, in fact, worth it).
However, the genuinely heartwarming film took twists and turns that were unexpected. It was humorous, emotionally-jarring (yes, I cried), and self-aware. And despite that it sometimes seemed to idealize the utopian lifestyle of the Cash family, for the most part, it avoided taking sides, indulging instead in self-reflection, fair representation, and an unclear hero/villain dichotomy. Not to mention, Mortensen absolutely nailed the free-spirited role that drove the film’s heartbeat; and the rest of the cast, especially the children, were notably superb, as well. Other high-notes were the film’s soundtrack, scored by Alex Somers, and the poignant cinematography by the talented Stéphane Fontaine that managed to douse the picture in natural light and capture the never-ending beauty that is characteristic of the Northwest.
Captain Fantastic hits select theaters in limited release today. Check out a trailer here:
Could Be Worse
Images courtesy of Bleecker Street
More From BUST