Captain Fantastic is an odd duck—in the best way. Like, oh, say, Little Miss Sunshine, it’s a comedy about a dysfunctional family. It’s also a mood-ring sort of movie. Its debut at Sundance this year elicited lots of sniffling and unabashed honking into tissues. Out in a less rarefied, insular world, it might strike viewers, even some of those same viewers, as an unabashedly twee stacked deck. But ultimately the movie wins on the strength of its wit, poignancy and stellar cast.
Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, a idealistic counterculture guy raising his six kids in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. He teaches them five languages. They fish, farm and live responsibly off the land. He tells them how to be good and decent human beings, how to question authority and how to resist the brainwashing of corporate media and corrupt government. As a family, they’re a feral bunch in patchy thrift shop clothes, and yet their life off the grid couldn’t be more authentic, harmonious and simple. The kids are wild, alert, in the moment, and full of feeling. They skip Christmas but celebrate Noam Chomsky Day; one of the younger kids receives a copy of The Joy of Sex as a present. By night, they bang on drums and harmonize by a roaring campfire. They’re both culty and cuddly.
Things change when Ben announces that their mother, his institutionalized wife suffering from bipolar disease, has committed suicide. That tragedy sends Ben and family on a road trip aboard their bus—it’s named “Steve”—to visit buttoned-down relatives (Katherine Hahn, Steve Zahn) in New Mexico. As the kids process the wider world for the first time, some of them begin to question things: Are they lucky, or are they freaks who have been missing out on a bigger life? Meanwhile, Ben’s fitness as a parent comes under heavy fire.
Captain Fantastic, wonderfully written and directed by the magnetic actor Matt Ross (Big Love, Silicon Valley), feels like a wry, looser, funkier version of The Mosquito Coast. Wise and funny, it’s got glorious photography by Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet) and a tone shot-through with melancholy, loss and regret. Each of the kids gives a perfect performance, particularly George MacKay as the oldest boy, but it’s Mortensen, a bearded, bearlike patriarch, who anchors the movie. He is Captain Fantastic.