Captain Fantastic begins innocently enough, with gorgeous shots of a deer in the wild (Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is a standout feature of this film). Then that deer is slaughtered by an unknown young man, who is soon joined by a ragged group of people, mudded up from the hunt, to celebrate the kill and welcome the boy as a man, which is done by slathering blood over his face, looking for all the world like a doomsday cult.
Viggo Mortensen is introduced to us as Captain Fantastic while he admires his handiwork (that would be the blood on his son’s face). It’s a hell of way to introduce us to our protagonists, but Matt Ross, the writer and director of Captain Fantastic, needs to put us on our back feet. Because once this sprawling family (six children – two boys, two girls, and two that are young enough, it’s hard to distinguish their gender, though this is the kind of movie where that feels like a feature), wash themselves and dress this deer, they become an attractive, if somewhat misfit, band living completely off the grid in a stunningly beautiful place.
Ross doesn’t want us to be completely seduced by the success of Ben (Viggo Mortensen) as the father and leader of this group of young doomsday preppers, this leftist Swiss Family Robinson, because he wants us to wrestle with whether or not Ben’s family model is good for them or not, just as Ben is forced to, once he and his family leave their mountain enclave.
Ben and his family (the children have spell-check breaking names like Kielyr, Vespyr, and Zaja) are thrown into turmoil when they receive news that Leslie, Ben’s wife and their mother, has committed suicide. Jack, played with angry stoicism by Frank Langella, tells Ben in no uncertain terms that he will be arrested if he comes to the funeral, but the grief of his family and their general “Damn the man” philosophy put Ben and his clan on the road and into direct contact with the many squares who think Ben and Leslie, who haunts him in that twilit place between sleep and wakefulness that produces such vivid dreams, might be crazy.
Ben is regularly forced to confront the fact that the squares, especially the angry Jack, but also his bewildered sister Harper, played by Kathryn Hahn, are right and that he is hurting his children. When one of the girls sent on a “mission” falls and breaks her arm, Ben begins to see himself as a threat as well and considers the possibility that this beautiful vision of making agrarian-warrior-philosophers that he and Leslie had for this family might be poisoned by the bipolar disorder that eventually destroyed her.
Ross and his ensemble handle all of this emotional and intellectual heavy lifting deftly, delightfully and sincerely. The audience will almost certainly not waver in their attachment to Ben and his hilariously well-prepared, if incredibly sheltered children. Bo, played with intensity by George MacKay, has no game with the ladies, but got into every Ivy League school he applied to, thanks to his parents’ education. Shree Crooks is an amazing discovery as young Zaja, who drops intellectual bombs with aplomb. Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso play the older sisters, Kielyr and Vespyr, respectively, who are both fierce womyn in training.
Even the momentary villain, Rellian, played by Nicholas Hamilton, is always sympathetic, even as he kicks against the pricks. This film would not have a prayer of working with so many issues and tones without a solid cast.
It veers from grief and suicide to first kisses to Noam Chomsky day and K-Bar combat knives. But it works and Captain Fantastic is utterly charming. It avoids many of the typical emotional traps found in family dramas, mostly by creating such an interestingly different family group and exploiting our desire to root for them with the knowledge hovering in our minds, that if we knew someone who was doing that to their kids in real life, we would be worried.
In a way, Ross has constructed a Marxist, or perhaps merely a Hegelian, dialectic with Captain Fantastic. It posits the thesis of Ben and his beautiful family and then crashes that into its anti-thesis (though you could just as easily locate the leftist resistance of Ben’s lifestyle as the anti-thesis to the thesis of modern American capitalist consumerism, it works either way) producing synthesis.
In the end, Ben brings his children down the mountain, out of isolation, into a mediated distance on a small farm, but still sending the kids off to school in the morning, a new normal, a new, sun-soaked, equilibrium.