Captain Fantastic (2016) is a road movie, a family drama, a tale of loss, and a loving portrait of an alternative family that is prepared to face everything but the modern world.
Viggo Mortensen is Ben, the father who (with his equally committed but currently absent wife) moved into the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest to raise their six children outside of society and off the grid. Ben is running the show as a single parent when we arrive at their rustic home—his wife has been hospitalized for a bi-polar disorder—putting them through survivalist boot camp in the mornings and home schooling them in the evenings (a mix of leftist political theory, critical thinking, and literary classics). And then comes the news that his wife has killed herself and her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd), who blame him for her illness, have forbidden him to attend the funeral. So of course this modern bohemian family defies the man and hits the highway in their retrofitted school bus for a road trip to New Mexico to crash the services and carry out the instructions of mom’s living will. It’s the first time these kids have ever really interacted with the world outside their idealistic bubble, at least for more than a couple of hours at a time. Pop culture is a foreign land and social media a mystery.
This is the kind of film that could slip into parody, turning the kids into wide-eyed naïfs goggle-eyed at fast food and cell phone addiction. And while there is a bit of that, the film celebrates their intelligence and knowledge and, especially, their ability to think and engage intelligently on any subject, while also acknowledging their lack of practical social skills, something unnecessary in their little Walden but vital to give the kids a real choice of future when they become adults. That becomes clear to Bo (George MacKay), the eldest child, when he meets a girl at a trailer campsite and realizes he doesn’t know how to talk to anyone outside of his family.
Mortensen brings a quiet authority to father Ben, an intellectual who both celebrates “Noam Chomsky Day” and marks Bo’s adulthood with a bear hunt. He speaks frankly and directly with his kids and turns their odyssey into modern America into a lesson in the evils of capitalism and corporate culture, and it’s to Mortensen’s credit that he does so without slipping into empty sloganeering or political cartoon. He does it all with love, and perhaps a little fear. Like all parents, there is a desire to protect them from the big bad world, and this is a journey into the belly of the beast, personified by father-in-law Langella, a rich Republican who only sees ruin for kids raised without knowledge of how the world works.
This is a culture that could easily slip into cult insularity, either by design or simply isolation. Writer/director Matt Ross avoids the whole issue and offers an idealized portrait of best intentions come to fruition while also recognizing the limitations of such rejection of the material world. While he could have brought more nuance and complication to their situation, he also directs with a sense of humor that neither condescends to nor ridicules its characters, and a loving warmth that suggests a certain protectiveness of these kids. He values their independence, their intelligence, and their devotion to one another. There’s one adolescent in rebellion mode, blaming his father for his mother’s death and roiling with the supercharged emotions of puberty, but these self-sufficient kids think of family as a partnership and are committed to their lifestyle. Far from blaming dad for the deprivation of video games and iPods, they take pride in their abilities and accomplishments, and that kind of self-confidence and self-awareness is an ideal I can get behind.
Mortensen earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance and Matt Ross won the Un Certain Regarde prize for his direction at Cannes.
The Blu-ray and DVD include the featurette “Insane or Insanely Great.” The Blu-ray also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolent Digital HD copies of the film.