You see the title Captain Fantastic and it may strike an image of a proud, triumphant superhero standing tall while his cape billows in the wind. It's even possible you may see Viggo Mortensen in the role; he's certainly got the valiant, rugged survivalist tenor to pull something like that off. But that's not exactly what you're going to get in Matt Ross' wonderfully unconventional family dramedy about a father fighting the good fight, not against a supervillain (well, not exactly), but to overcome grief and build a perfect life for his children.
To get a sense of how far off the beaten path Captain Fantastic is; the opening scene begins with eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay), covered in camouflaging mud, hunting and killing a deer as part of an elaborate ceremony of manhood. He's surrounded by his father Ben (Mortensen), and his uniquely-named siblings: Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Nai (Charlie Shotwell), and Zaja (Shree Crooks). Together they live in what any outsider would consider a wilderness compound, put through harsh physical and mental challenges by their father to be "philosopher kings". And we're not just talking about doing a few push-ups. Ben has them climbing mountains and engaged in combat simulations that look like something out of Gladiator. These are not your typical kids. There are no cell phones, no video games, no designer clothes. They know more about Noam Chomsky than Chomsky probably does, but don't dare ask them a question about Star Trek. Ben has created a shelter from the rampant consumerism, commercialization, and dumbing down of a society he has come to ultimately reject.
But there's darkness in this isolated paradise they've created. The mother, Ben's wife, has committed suicide after a long illness, spent away from the family in a hospital miles away. Her death rattles them all, in particular the rebellious Rellian, and they set out to New Mexico to make sure her final wish to be cremated in accordance with her Buddhist beliefs, are respected. It's at this point the film picks up a notch after a fairly slow open, and becomes for a time like an even more offbeat version of Little Miss Sunshine. As this family of outsiders cruises through America their perfectionist lifestyle frequently collides accepted social norms. Since they can't catch any wild game to eat, they embark on "Mission: Free the Food" in which Ben and the kids construct a scheme to steal from a grocery store. It's okay because they're really just sticking it to "The Man" by acting like criminals. It's all funny and affecting in its own way, even if one can't help but be disturbed by the choices Ben is making for these kids.
Speaking of which, Ben's father-in-law (Frank Langella) is one who doesn't approve of the life his daughter chose. He forbids Ben to attend the funeral, a request he obviously refutes, and causes a scene that nearly gets him arrested. A visit with Ben's sister and brother-in-law (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn) underscores just how different his family is from the rest of the world, but it's also where the film's independent streak turns into conceitedness. In one scene, Ben challenges his sister's two dim-bulb sons to explain the Bill of Rights. Upon receiving answers that amount to jibberish, he calls upon his youngest son who can recite the Bill verbatim and offer rational opinion on its merits. Point taken; public school sucks, have your kid shovel books into his brain instead. Much of the film's latter half is an exercise in self-satisfaction in which anybody not part of Ben's immediate circle is presented as clueless, moronic, or heartless. That may cause Ben's rather unusual choices to look like the right ones, but it's all artificial because Ross's screenplay deals from the bottom of the deck. He's fortunate to have an actor like Mortensen who so easily and perfectly slips into the lead role. Although Mortensen has long since shed his mainstream skin for the career of an indie stalwart, we still see him as the resilient Aragorn riding to the rescue. Captain Fantastic uses that perception to its full advantage by adding some emotional chinks into Ben's armor.
Eventually there does come a point when the rigidity of the lessons Ben has taught become a hindrance. The entirety of the world can't be found in a book, and when sons Bodevan and Relligan begin to realize just how little they actually know it threatens everything Ben has been trying to build. Or rather, it threatens everything Ben has been trying to escape from as he copes with issues of guilt and sorrow. These revelations send Captain Fantastic teetering into a darker but more honest place. And while it eventually veers back into sunny fantasy land, complete with an acoustic cover of Guns 'n Roses' "Sweet Child O Mine" (performed by the cast and can be heard here), the film leaves us with an appreciation of Ben's heroic efforts.
Rating: 4 out of 5