For as long as people have been raising children, there have been debates among parents about the best way to bring them up. Needless to say, the methods Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) uses in Captain Fantastic are likely to be frowned upon by even the worst parents.
Ben lives with his six kids in the middle of the wilds, constantly putting even the youngest of them through rigorous training to build their physical prowess, as well as building their minds by having them read books way beyond their years. They have no television, phones or other electronics to allow them to communicate with the outside world. Instead of Christmas, they celebrate “Noam Chomsky Day,” commemorating the birth of the modern philosopher when Ben gives his kids useful gifts like knives and other weapons they can use for hunting.
As the film opens, Ben’s eldest son Bo (George Mackay)—the name is actually short for something far more unusual because Ben and his wife never believed in commonly used surnames—is hunting a deer as a rite of passage while his father and younger brothers and sisters watch with awe.
On their irregular trip into town, Ben learns from his estranged wife’s father (Frank Langella) that she has killed herself. Her grieving dad also doesn’t want Ben showing up at the funeral and causing any trouble. You see, he never approved of his daughter’s hippie lifestyle and how she and Ben raised their family.
When Bo picks up his mail, he learns he’s been accepted into several prestigious universities, none of which his father would approve of if he knew his son had even applied. Ben then has to break the news to his kids of their mother’s death (in his usual unfiltered way), and that he can’t take them to their mother’s funeral.
Captain Fantastic was another one of the odder films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, one that took the second act of Hunt for the Wilderpeople to its furthest extreme, because in this case, Ben’s kids have grown up in the wild, giving a whole new meaning to the term “home schooled.”
This isn’t the first feature from filmmaker Matt Ross, but it’s probably one that will get him more attention, mainly due to the casting of Viggo Mortensen, whose portrayal of Ben makes him hard to like at first: he’s just so awful to these kids, really pushing them hard and not allowing them to be, well, kids. When Ben’s youngest asks where babies come from, he gives her an honest unbridled response that leaves her even more confused and even slightly grossed out. That’s relatively tame compared to how he treats his middle son, 12-year-old Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), when he’s injured during a dangerous mountain climbing “lesson,” though Rellian’s also the one child that gives Ben the most pushback rather than taking everything he says as canon.
As much as this is Mortensen’s show, it’s often the six great young actors cast as his kids who leave the most lasting impression. The two youngest are adorable moppets with floppy blonde hair while his twin 15-year-old daughters Vespyr and Kielyr are fairly sensible since they’re kept far away from boys. British actor MacKay is quite fantastic in a role where he has to act awkwardly when around girls he meets, but still put on a strong front as the “Beta male” of the clan. This movie is as much his coming-of-age story as it is about Ben coming to terms with the fact that maybe the way he pushes his kids to prepare them for the real world might go too far sometimes.
Despite being almost two hours long, the film just gets more and more interesting as it goes and as things take unexpected directions. When the family arrives at the funeral, and Ben learns his wife’s father isn’t respecting her wishes for cremation, he and the family rebel in their own way, but only to the point when the police are called in and Ben realizes his kids might be better off with their grandparents. Only Rellian, who is sick of his father by that point, agrees, but things don’t end on the downer note some might expect.
There’s something that feels refreshing about both the novelty of the premise and also how it allows Ross to play with typical indie dramedy tropes without veering too far into the realm of the cliché. Ross ably proves himself to be a filmmaker really coming into his own with a film that would offer most filmmakers far too many challenges to make financing feasible. Obviously, someone did finance it, and the film does pay off for anyone willing to go along for the full ride. (The film’s title is never referred to by anyone, nor do we find out why it’s called that, other than the obvious.)
Captain Fantastic ends up succeeding because of the time Ross spends developing each of the characters and their personalities, especially the kids. Even so, it’s clearly the talent Mortensen has for bringing out the best in the young cast he’s been bridled with that makes the film one that should find a good number of fans.
Captain Fantastic opens in select cities on Friday, July 8.