For anyone who has ever fantasized about dropping out of society, ‘Captain Fantastic’ qualifies as the kind-hearted fantasy to prove such desires are A-OK. It’s one of those brightly colored, quirky Sundance comedies that are often the plague of contemporary indie filmmaking. However, this is thankfully one of the good ones.
Odd and sneakily complex while still serving up laughs and cozy emotions, ‘Captain Fantastic’ is a poppy and comforting alternative to summer blockbuster bloat. Hinged on a fantastic (pun semi intended) lead performance by the great Viggo Mortensen, it’s the ideal way to sneak away from the mainstream without being challenged too excessively. Some might dislike the movie for that exact reason (i.e. pretentious people), but taken on its own sweetly flavored terms, ‘Captain Fantastic’ offers delightfully offbeat escapism.
Viggo Mortensen with a raging Charlie Manson beard star as Ben, a hippie-dippy former political activist who decided to drop off the grid and raise his children to be philosopher kings. It kind of worked, too. Ben and his six children live in a school bus and series of handmade cabins, engage in strenuous physical activity, read undergrad novels and textbooks as ‘tweens, hunt their own game, and find a happy home in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, trouble comes to paradise when their mother commits suicide, forcing the kids to not only face mortality, but head out into McDonalds society for the first time to attend her funeral.
Ben openly discusses the death in brutal honesty and is also happy to discuss any seemingly adult concept with the children, who are mature well beyond their years intellectually. However, as they attempt to meet Mountain Dew-soaked kids their own age for the first time, there’s clearly a bit of emotional and social stunting involved. Nothing that can’t be overcome, but the idealist sheltering starts to pop up and some of the kids question if their lifestyle is correct. Everything then comes to a head when they arrive at the funeral dressed particularly ridiculously and Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella, playing one stern note) attempts to take over the family with his wealth and cozy conservative trappings.
The movie opens with Ben and the kids hunting a deer, and the child who makes the kill feasts on the heart. It makes no bones about the somewhat psychotic extremes of the lifestyle before showing the loving strengths. There’s both passion and compassion to their simple life that’s charming, and writer/director Matt Ross (best known as an actor in shows like ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘American Horror Story’) delights in playing the extremes for comedy and the ideals for sincerity. It’s quite moving and sweet, while also being a little terrifying (especially when the clan go mountain climbing in the rain to distract themselves from their mourning).
Once the gang hit the road for the funeral, the movie quickly slides into quirk comedy. The world views them as clowns, even if Ben can quickly dismiss the reasons why. The movie has some truly hilarious sequences, such as when the family visit their aunt, uncle and cousins (led by the always delightful Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn) and sip on wine over dinner while being shocked by the ADD violence of videogames. Ross plays the culture clash comedy just right, always staying in the perspective of the outsider family with their outlandish activities normalized and contemporary consumerist values played as absurd. The philosophies behind their lifestyle are sound. The trouble is that they have a hard time fitting in whenever taken outside the bubble, and that becomes oddly tragic.
The film boats a nice and bright aesthetic that heightens reality just enough for the comedy to click. Mortensen is a strong backbone for the piece. He never leans into the laughs, playing his somewhat unhinged father as a calmly stoic hippie whose wild ideas have worked in isolation for so long that he’s confused when confronted with the realities of the outside world. It’s beautiful, compassionate acting that proves he’s one of the best actors of his generation.
The kids are all remarkable as well, without a precious moment among them. This is a wonderfully acted picture, which probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the director’s background in that particular craft. Unfortunately, the moralizing and message-making of the movie overwhelm things with cheese once the third act begins and Langella’s cold water splash of reality is introduced. What Ross rides as subtext and comedy fodder suddenly transforms into impassioned speeches that feel a little forced. A formulaic emotional and narrative arc baked into the script becomes a bit wary once it takes over, and it’s kind of sad to see the unconventional film become anything but.
Thankfully, Ross has one final trick up his sleeve in time for the finale. It might be easy to predict where this tale of tested family bonds is heading, but the actual context for the big payoff of emotional catharsis is so odd and unexpected that it kind of works. Make no mistake, despite all the slapstick family robberies and celebrations of Noam Chomsky, this is ultimately a portrait of a loving dysfunctional family. Fortunately, it at least comes at the sap in unexpected ways and serves up a delightfully offbeat dramedy. The movie is a pleasant time-waster with a few extra ideas to mull over between chuckles and smiles. Nothing wrong with that, especially when it works this well.