On the face of it, it’s easy to see why some might be quick to rally against the second feature from Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms). With its hip, quirky premise, could this be another tiresomely self-conscious festival indie? Balancing genuine thoughtfulness with a pinch of sweetness while bolstered by one of Viggo Mortensen’s best performances, Captain Fantastic thankfully mostly lives up to its title.
Ben Cash (Mortensen) has chosen to raise his six children off-the-grid in a Pacific Northwestern forest plot he bought many years earlier, though when he gets a shocking phone call from civilisation, he’s forced to uproot his kids and head back into the world.
It’s fair to say that how much you’ll enjoy this movie will likely reflect your own understanding of and tolerance for new-age parenting. To even the accepting crowd, though, Ben’s unconventional approach could easily become insufferable, yet there’s a sure admirable quality here, as he challenges his kids while encouraging them at the same time. He’s also brutally, hilariously honest about the real world, and viewers may well feel that he in fact tells them too much too soon.
To that end, Ross’ film is self-aware enough to posit that not all of Ben’s philosophies are water-tight – because are anyone’s? – namely how ill-equipped his kids are for any outside interactions, and how at times they appear to largely just be regurgitating his own views. In fairness, though, how many parents don’t shape kids within their own moral spectrum, intentionally or not?
Even if you’re not quite on-board with the movie’s message, there’s a marvelous performance from Mortensen at the center, and the cast of kids aren’t far behind either, each feeling like a uniquely fleshed-out character in their own right. In addition, there’s Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn as Ben’s sister and brother-in-law, and Frank Langella and Ann Dowd as the parents of Ben’s mentally ill wife. There are no small parts, and everyone here is thoroughly compelling.
There’s enough moral ambiguity that, while it would be easy to make Langella’s disapproving father-in-law the card-carrying bad guy, he actually has a perfectly reasonable rationale for disapproving of Ben’s parenting. This leads to a legitimately unpredictable finale, not that a movie of this sort really needs to be surprising. It flirts with going wildly off-the-rails with some of its last-minute dramatic gambles, but thanks to Ross’ firm handle on tone, it gingerly stays the course for an extremely poignant, goosebump-raising ending, even if it definitely leaves a few logistical issues hanging.
Captain Fantastic is a thought-provoking meditation on the way we live our lives. You probably won’t want to stop eating burgers and slurping milkshakes anytime soon, but you might feel inclined to adopt some of Ben’s free-thinking attitudes to discourse, the human body and parenting. Mortensen is a triumph.
Captain Fantastic is in UK cinemas and available on VOD now