Captain Fantastic: a heart-wrenching look at an unconventional ‘hippie’ family

Viggo Mortensen steals the show as a father whose idealistic way of raising his children comes under attack by the real world

Its always tricky using a modifier like fantastic in a movies title, because if the film doesnt live up to it, the snarky review headlines just sort of write themselves. Sadly for copy editors the world over, Captain Fantastic wont have that problem. Not only is it wonderful it is heartfelt, comedic, gorgeous and just the right amount of sad. The sound of sniffling could be heard throughout the theater at Sundance, where it debuted this week.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is raising his six children off the grid in rural Washington. They live in a sort of yurt with adjacent tree houses and other buildings, they hunt and farm all of their own food, and they celebrate Noam Chomskys birthday like its Christmas. Ben is the sort of ideological-minded communist who hates the greater capitalist culture of America and teaches his children five languages as well as a doctrine to stick it to the man. Their life seems ideal, enough to make you want to cut up your Costco card, buy a VW bus and bathe under a waterfall after doing yoga in a meadow.

Though the kids seem almost feral at times, the family meshes well, literally making beautiful music together by the campfire. Thats all threatened when Bens wife, who was manic-depressive, kills herself in a mental institution. Ben packs up the family bus (named Steve) and takes his brood on a five-day journey to New Mexico, where his wifes parents are holding a funeral. Everything starts to unravel as the children experience the outside world for the first time (you can only imagine their reaction to violent video games) and Bens fitness as a father is attacked.

Just like former Sundance success Little Miss Sunshine, Captain Fantastic questions what it means to be a father and just what values are important in a family. However unlike that previous movie, it looks at the cost of idealism and questions to how far a person must go to live an authentic life. Ben isnt quirky, hes fighting for what he believes is right for himself, his kids and the world at large. Mortensen, looking his most mountain man handsome, is winning and charismatic, walking on the knifes edge between principled and unhinged. Shockingly all the children, including the littlest tykes, are up to the challenge. The biggest standouts are George MacKay as the oldest, who is considering going off to college, and Nicholas Hamilton as the almost feral middle, who starts to question why they live like they do.

Gorgeously shot and peppered with genuine emotion, this is a great sophomore effort for writer/director Matt Ross, better known as an actor for his roles in Big Love, Silicon Valley and American Horror Story. Finely wrought and inventive, Captain Fantastic surely earns the lofty praise of its title.

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