Captain Fantastic

(2016) ** 1/2 R
118 min. Bleecker Street. Director: Matt Ross. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler.

/content/films/4939/2.jpgAmerican thinker Noam Chomsky once said, "The goal of education is to produce human beings whose values are not accumulation and domination, but instead are free association on equal terms.” That’s the kind of sentiment taken to heart by one Ben Cash in the new film Captain Fantastic. In order to raise free-thinking children, Ben and Leslie have chosen to raise their brood of six “off the grid” in Pacific Northwest forest land, where the only holiday they observe, “Noam Chomsky Day,” hasn’t yet been co-opted by Hallmark.

Like Allie Fox from The Mosquito Coast—except kinder and gentler—Viggo Mortensen’s Ben fervently believes in his isolationism and parenting approach. He imposes to-the-limit physical conditioning and intense home-school education, and although the kids don’t much seem to mind, a break in routine causes the Cashes to question everything. When Ben’s wife dies, he reluctantly agrees to bundle his brood into the family vehicle (a school bus dubbed “Steve,” stocked with clothes and books) and venture into civilization for the funeral.

Writer-director Matt Ross (better known as Hooli CEO Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley) delicately teases out humor in the early-going, both from the family’s “norm” (on Noah Chomsky Day, Dad gifts his underage brood with hunting knives and, for one curious youngster, The Joy of Sex) and the inevitable counterculture-culture clash with everyday Americans (“Everyone’s so fat! Fat like hippos!”). The starkest contrast comes when Ben visits his sister and brother-in-law (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn) in their suburban home. An argument over parenting devolves into a smug object lesson from Ben, when he demonstrates the ignorance of his video-game-playing nephews by prompting a civics lesson from pint-sized daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks).

The crux of Captain Fantastic, though is to question the extremity of Ben’s parenting. Despite the appeal of the physically healthy, intellectually rigorous lifestyle—one in which Ben doesn’t shelter his kids from any truths or cede their education to mind-mulching mass media—the limits and dangers become apparent. Oldest son Bodovan (George MacKay), who enjoys a primal male rite-of-passage in the film’s first scene, has begun to feel the necessity to be not just of the world but in the world, perhaps especially to be able to interact with young women (“I am a freak because of you!” he blurts to Dad). Middle son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) gets a taste of suburban creature comforts and yearns to live with his grandparents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd).

Unfortunately, Captain Fantastic develops third-act problems as it devolves into calculated contrivances, didacticism, and sentiment (Ross also consistently defaults to exploring the male characters, which weakens the narrative). The film’s saving graces are the uniformly strong performances—from the terrific juvenile performers (also including Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, and Charlie Shotwell) to the always-commanding Langella and a centered, soulful Mortensen—and its intriguing subject matter. It may not be a Fantastic film, but it’s not half bad.

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