Viggo Mortensen is at the top of his game in this family dramedy, shot through with humor and heart. Written and directed with scrappy grace by Matt Ross (an actor best known for playing vengeful CEO Gavin Belson of HBO’s Silicon Valley), Captain Fantastic takes turns you don’t see coming.
Mortensen stars as Ben, the rugged individualist who raises his brood of six in the Pacific Northwest far from the concrete jungles of civilization. In the opening scene, Ben initiates his eldest son, Bodevan (British actor George MacKay), into the ritual of the hunt and other survivalist skills. Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) have blessed — or burdened — their children with made-up names. Besides Bodevan, there are sons Nai (Charlie Shotwell) and Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), along with teen daughters Zaja (Shree Crooks), Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso). They’ve educated their kids in the arts, practical and intellectual; readings range from quantum theory to Lolita, with nights by the campfire spent making music with guitars and harmonicas.
If this is all sounding too much like granola and Kumbaya, hold on. Owing perhaps to the fact that Ross lived with his mother in similar circumstances, Captain Fantastic radiates genuine respect for existing in harmony with nature without skimping on the youthful need to rebel and see the world in full.
The catalyst for change comes with the news of Leslie’s death. She had left her forest family to seek treatment for bipolar disorder and later took her own life. That leaves Ben and kids to pile into a ramshackle bus and set out for New Mexico where Leslie’s parents, Jack (Frank Langella) and Abigail (Ann Dowd), are preparing her funeral. Ben knows Leslie wanted to be cremated and her ashes spread into the air. He won’t let her be buried in the ground, one of the reasons Jack has threatened Ben with arrest if he dares show up.
It’s true that the conflict is drawn on familiar lines with clichés ever ready to invade. But Ross never trades in the humanity of his characters for an easy laugh or tear. The film’s authenticity extends to the natural-light cinematography of the gifted Stéphane Fontaine (A Prophet) and the crisp editing of Joseph Krings (Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead). Still, it’s the actors who make us believe. MacKay, as the son who dreams of college and discovery, has a first-kiss moment that explodes stereotype. Langella is stellar at finding layers in the role of the strict father. And Mortensen is just magnificent: His performance standing with his career-best work in The Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. He gets under the skin of this loving father who is unafraid to face the world naked and yet touchingly ready to grapple by the possibility that his arrogant, free spirit might actually do harm to his children. The film doesn’t take sides, but it does fairly, subtly and movingly represent them. Captain Fantastic takes a piece out of you.