Ben and his wife, Leslie, have been rusticating in the dripping woods with six kids since the birth of their now-teenage son Bodevan.
With Leslie in the hospital, George now oversees a free-range brood of bright, curious, physically brave kids who are as comfortable with a boning knife as they are reading Middlemarch while wearing a gas mask.
That last touch is a nod to Ben’s mistrust of an outside world that, by his lights, is fatally commercialized, hypocritical and lazy.
Written and directed by Matt Ross – familiar to most viewers as an actor in such TV shows as “Silicon Valley” and “American Horror Story” – “Captain Fantastic” vividly captures Ben’s overpowering influence on his children, who can’t help but come under his implacably demanding spell: When one of his daughters describes Lolita as “interesting,” he lights into her, accusing her of using a “non-word” and insisting that she provide a more nuanced, sophisticated literary analysis. Later, during the family’s annual celebration of Noam Chomsky Day, he gives his 6-year-old son a copy of The Joy of Sex.
It goes without saying that, for all his efforts to instill self-reliance and fearlessness into his kids, Ben can be a sanctimonious pain and – more dangerously – prone to overlook the risk his survivalist lessons entail. That dualism lies at the heart of “Captain Fantastic,” wherein Bodevan and his brother Rellian begin to chafe against their father’s didacticism, and a family crisis sends the whole clan on an antic bus trip to New Mexico.
It’s during that journey – punctuated by visits to Ben’s sister and brother-in-law and a stay with his wife’s parents – that Ben and the children realize just how alienated they’ve become while living in Walden, and the rest of the world has gone Walmart.
“Captain Fantastic” joins a small canon of films dedicated to American off-the-gridders, from Sean Penn’s masterful “Into the Wild” to Rebecca Miller’s “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” and Campbell Scott’s “Off the Map.” It’s of a piece with adventure tales set in magnificent wild spaces this summer, from “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” to “Swiss Army Man.”
Working with a terrific ensemble of attractive young actors, Ross delivers a nuanced, lived-in, frequently very amusing contribution to an oeuvre that, at a time of discontent with the political and economic status quo, feels perfect both in its timing and its affectionately skeptical tone. Just as valuably, he has provided a superb showcase for Mortensen’s particular gifts as an actor of exceptional physical beauty and sensitivity. As easy as it is for him to slip effortlessly into Ben’s most seductive qualities, he proves just as willing to embrace the character’s darker, more narcissistic shadow material.
As is so often the case with even the best movies, “Captain Fantastic” falters just a bit as it moves toward an ending that the filmmaker can’t seem to bring himself to tighten up. It goes mushy just where a bit of Ben’s own ruthlessness would have been welcome. But even with that hiccup, “Captain Fantastic” leaves viewers with the cheering, deeply affecting image of a dad whose superpowers lie in simply doing the best that he can.