Matt Ross’s follow-up to his low-budget film, “28 Hotel Rooms,” “Captain Fantastic” is a delightful film that could have easily turned out badly. About a father who raises and trains his children outside society, it sounds really hard to execute without making it sound like a joke. But Ross turns the film into a story about family and with all its tendency to highlight the family’s outcast situation, the movie and the cast are a delight and the film is much deeper than it initially appears to be.
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is a father of six–Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Cooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell)–and lives with them in the forest on the outskirts of town. There, he trains them, teaches them how to kill animals for food, survival tactics, reading, writing, and they don’t live in a real home, but they sleep under the stars every night. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad deal, except for the fact that outside of books and interacting with only each other, the children don’t know much about the outside world.
When their mother dies after a long struggle with mental illness, her father (Frank Langella), who despises Ben, asks that he stay far away from the funeral because he believes that Ben’s lifestyle helped kill his daughter. But the family decides to attend, of course, and they road trip to New Mexico for the funeral. All the while, Ben and his kids have to face some harsh realities about the way they live and how to go about their future.
Matt Ross, in addition to directing, also wrote the script. Each of his characters, although there are several of them, have distinct personalities. Viggo Mortensen is perfectly cast as Ben, a man who truly believes he’s giving his children a better life by abstaining from the disease of society, but who still loves his children very dearly. George MacKay is wonderful as Ben’s eldest son who’s torn between respecting his father and wanting to go away to college. The remainder of the kids are also very well-cast and Frank Langella and Kathryn Hahn round out a great supporting cast.
“Captain Fantastic” is all heart and is strengthened by Mortensen’s performance. It’s a new take on the idea of family, but one that is a fresh look on a different version of it. Ross’s script is full of good character interactions and delves into non-cliche territory. My one nitpick with the film is that the end is perhaps too clean and neat, but the film is well-executed enough that it’s not as bothersome on the whole. A great take on family, with a lot of heart and a narrative that’s briskly-paced.