A heroic fight for wild souls in a tame world
Captain Fantastic is not about a superhero, but its title character is a man of exceptional abilities who tries to instill a kind of heroic vision in his own life and in those of his six children as well.
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his children are first seen looking like primitive warriors, stalking a deer somewhere in a mountainous forest. We soon learn that this is a family taking part in an ancient coming-of-age ceremony, with the elder brother, a teenager named Bodevan (George MacKay), making the kill and accepting the ritual ministrations of the long-haired, nearly naked guide who is their father.
Ben and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have stepped away from conventional society and are raising their children in the wilderness and outside “the system.” The kids are all home-schooled, which in this case means a powerful mixture of survivalist training and accelerated courses in serious reading (with Vladimir Nabokov, Noam Chomsky and The Joy of Sex all getting prominent mention).
What sparks the main drama here, however, is the death of Leslie. She is not present for the ritual in the forest, and when Ben and the kids return to their home territory, they learn she has died in the hospital to which she’d been sent. That can’t help but provoke a set of emotional crises for Ben and the youngsters, but it also leads to a clash between Ben and Leslie’s relatives, including especially her well-to-do parents.
Leslie’s imperious father, Jack (Frank Langella), is at complete loggerheads with Ben, and he forbids him to appear at the conventional Christian funeral he has arranged for Leslie. Armed with a last will and testament in which Leslie affirmed her commitment to Buddhism and asks to be cremated, Ben remains defiant and resolves to honor her wishes, whatever the cost.
For a time, Captain Fantastic looks as if it might boil itself down to a battle of cultural caricatures—the visionary hippie rebel vs. the staid, devout authoritarian. Indeed, some of the film’s best scenes have sharp semi-satirical takes on aspects of recent “culture wars” in contemporary America. But the tendency toward simplistic pot-shots gives way to a more incisive and nuanced sense of the characters’ respective pros and cons.
Writer-director Matt Ross plays a little fast and loose with the process by which these families move beyond their seemingly irreconcilable differences. But excellent work from the actors, young and old alike, creates some powerful and gritty sympathies in dramatic developments that might otherwise have seemed facile and sentimental.
Mortensen brings a low-key brilliance to every aspect of the unexpectedly complex title role. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn do some very nice work as in-laws with whom Ben and the kids have an intricately fraught visit (probably the best chunk of comic drama in the entire film). Ann Dowd has a couple of good grandmotherly moments as Leslie’s mom.