The first time Viggo Mortensen surfaces in “Captain Fantastic,” he’s covered in mud, presenting a trophy to his shirtless son moments after the teen butchers a wild deer with his bare hands. It’s a spellbinding image that epitomizes the oddball tribalism that Mortensen’s character, Ben, has developed with his isolated clan of six children in the Pacific Northwest, and immediately establishes the striking intelligence of actor-director Matt Ross’ feature-length debut. Despite a premise that could easily turn hokey or farcical — radical parent raises kids in the woods, then suddenly must face reality when he takes them back to civilization — “Captain Fantastic” manages to inhabit the utopian highs of Ben’s unorthodox world even as it falls apart.
At first, the family’s idyllic existence seems untouchable. Ross imbues Ben’s self-contained universe with a magical atmosphere expertly captured by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (“A Prophet”). The deep greens of the dense forestry are matched by the tender shadows of the fireside jam sessions that define the clan’s evening activities. There’s only one thing missing from this giddy set of survivalists: A mother. Ben keeps his family busy with daytime calisthenics, and otherwise preoccupied with classic literature and philosophical debates that make them wise beyond their years. But his wife, with whom he created this unconventional setup, moved back to society in the aftermath of a mental breakdown. And moments after “Captain Fantastic” establishes Ben’s whimsical anarchist wonderland, Ross deals it a fatal blow as Ben learns that his wife has committed suicide.
So begins a tumultuous odyssey that’s alternately mopey and inspiring, as Ben crams his sheltered children into a ramshackle school bus and heads back to the city to reclaim his wife’s body. Awkwardly reengaging with his his upper-class suburban in-laws (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn) while condescending to their capitalism-fueled lifestyles, Ben’s melancholic return builds to a confrontation with his wife’s affluent father (Frank Langella). Once it gets there, “Captain Fantastic” draws out a contrast between experimental parenting and traditional values a bit too bluntly, but Ross’ screenplay endows Ben’s family with such an endearing presence that the question surrounding the morality of their situation often seems superfluous. It’s just fun to hang out with them.
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Although they inhabit certain hippy-dippy archetypes, they speak in eloquent terms far deeper than the stereotypes suggested by the material. “We’re in the unique position of hating those people,” says Vespyr (an angelic Annalise Basso), who becomes the strong female voice of the group in their mother’s absence. Ross gives “cute” an entirely new definition the moment Ben’s youngest child says the words “fascist capitalist.” And nobody stands out more than Ben’s oldest child, teenager Bodevan, portrayed by emerging star George MacKay with an intense gaze that suggests he’s just a few steps above total lunacy. His clumsy attempts to express his love to a random hookup when the family stops in a trailer park epitomizes the clever fish-out-of-water dynamic that carries Ross’ story along.
Above all else, however, Mortensen gives “Captain Fantastic” its underlying credibility. Spending most of the movie buried beneath an unkempt beard and peering out at his relatives with tired eyes, he exudes the convictions of a man eager to reject the standards surrounding him. Whether celebrating “Noam Chomsky Day” with his kids or casually serving wine to his child in the presence of his baffled in-laws (“it’s not crack”), Ben’s provocative behavior carries the whiff of purpose even when it plays for laughs. Mortensen creates a sense of mystery around the character that stems from the paradox of his idealism. His approach to raising a family is both blatantly impractical and just wondrous enough to embrace. When the family bonds together to trick a police officer on the tail of their school bus, their collective response (“Power to the people/Stick it to the man”) is downright adorable.
As Ross cycles through their antics, “Captain Fantastic” arrives at a suspenseful conclusion that jeopardizes the family’s future prospects. And then it keeps going and going, with Ross so clearly in love with his creations that he has a hard time letting them go. Even at nearly two hours, not every character receives equal positioning, and at times some of the younger members of the brood seem more like ideas than full-fledged characters. But even as vessels for Ross’ broader ideas about the relationship between family and social pressures, “Captain Fantastic” is astonishingly better than its premise makes it sound. This is a feel-good road trip and family dramedy movie crowned by Sundance that actually makes the formula feel fresh.
Erik Simkins / Bleecker Street
When it went to Cannes, where Ross won best director in the Un Certain Regard section, it was perceived differently — as a savvy missive against American stupidity. In its own odd way, “Captain Fantastic” has it both ways. It’s a crowdpleaser about a world of contradictions.
“Captain Fantastic” opens in limited release on Friday, July 8.