Captain Fantastic asks what would happen if you removed your children from society, and instead raised them isolated in the woods?
Need more? Their strict routine would consist of a healthy natural diet of meat, fruit and vegetables that they'd caught themselves, mixed in with heavy doses of in-depth education, analysis, and highly dangerous physical activities to make them stronger. Away from the pratfalls of capitalism and excesses of technology, sugar, and distractions, they'd invariably have a leg up on their peers. In fact, they'd have created a version of paradise. But would they be well-equipped to survive? Would they even want to survive? What's the point of surviving if you have no contact with the outside world?
These are weighty and thought-provoking themes, but it speaks volumes of Captain Fantastic that these topics of how to be a parent are covered in a fresh, entertaining, and touching style, while never verging into preachy or judgmental territories.
Having become disenfranchised by life in America, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife decide to raise their six children deep in a yurt in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. However, several years later, after she suffers a mental breakdown, she kills herself in an institution, having left their isolation in an attempt to recover.
With his children in tow, Ben decides to drive out to New Mexico to attend the funeral, despite having been warned by her father (Frank Langella) that not only was he responsible for his daughter's death but that he will also be immediately arrested if he attends. However, since any kind of funeral in a church was against his wife's wishes, Ben sets out to stop it, while during his travels he and his children are repeatedly confronted by the life that he wanted them to avoid.
Captain Fantastic's solid spine of a narrative allows it to dovetail and explore its weighty themes of fatherhood and the most appropriate and stimulating way to raise children without feeling aimless or superfluous. The suicide of Ben Cash's wife brings an edge and gravitas to each of the scenes, while they still unfold with a humor and unpredictability that never makes Captain Fantastic uncomfortable to watch.
From pre-teen Zaja (Shree Cooks) embarrassing her imbecile older, brutish nephews with her knowledge of the constitution and American government, to Bo's (George MacKay) first flirtatious advances with a girl of his own age ending so disastrously that both her and her mother end up laughing in his face, via Viggo Mortensen walking out of a camper van naked where he nonchalantly presents his manhood to an elderly couple walking past, Captain Fantastic proudly boasts a surreal lightness that juxtaposes well with its themes.
It also helps that director Matt Ross shoots the film with a brightness and warmth that's gorgeous to look at and illuminates the performances, while his script is an even presentation of how society can both trample and elevate our lives. There's a very clear "Fuck capitalism" vibe, as well as a rejection of how lazy everyday modern life and people has become. But it's also just as clear that Ben Cash's way of living is wholly inappropriate, as his children repeatedly injure themselves, hold resentment towards him, are forced to steal, and simply have no idea how to function with other people. Basically, the best way to parent lies somewhere in between, but there's a stubborness to Captain Fantastic and its characters that means it is at its best when either philosophy or ideology is being challenged.
Captain Fantastic could easily derail into a cartoonish, unbelievable and frankly tedious presentation of various leftist theories -- which it does on occasion, without ruining the film, which, while I'm here criticizing, ends a little too neatly. But Matt Ross' script and direction are rooted in the genuine emotion of the plot and its characters, while Viggo Mortensen carries the film with a raw intensity, sentimentality, rugged physicality, as well as a childlike naivety that make everything believable.
Mortensen is also boosted by sterling support work not just from the recognizable faces of Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn -- whose delightful camaraderie as a married couple befits a pair that are just one letter away from sharing a surname -- but from the merry brood of children that basically share the lead role with him. Together they show how reliant they are on each other, and while Mortensen does most of the heavy emotional lifting he's ably and adorably assisted at every turn.
Captain Fantastic could lazily be labelled as Little Miss Sunshine meets Hunt For The Wilderpeople with leftist leanings, but I know that Ben Cash wouldn't approve of such frivolity. So I'll just end by insisting it's a wholly unique, touching, charmingly eccentric road-trip oddity that should make a refreshing break from the vapid bombastic blockbuster blasts that Hollywood has been churning out all summer long. Get it watched.