Captain Fantastic explores parenthood and family without ever reaching a conclusive answer.
It’s a plot that could have been written by Wes Anderson: Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is a father raising his kids off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. He puts them through daily fitness regimens and gives detailed, scientific sex talks, and they live in a giant tent and play music around a campfire. The children are incredibly intellectual and mature, much like The Royal Tenenbaums. Cast Bill Murray as the dad and you have a Moonrise Kingdom sequel. But what Matt Ross has created is not quirky or endearing, and it has none of the coquettishness that nauseates those who run at the sight of a Wes Anderson trailer. Captain Fantastic explores parenthood and family without ever reaching a conclusive answer.
Off the bat the film makes sure you understand that these kids are smart—mainly by making you feel dumb. When the family hits the road and ends up at a relative’s house, a Bill of Rights battle ensues that takes aim at the state of public schools in the United States. It is cute hearing small children explain the complexities of philosophical and political ideologies, but it also wears on you fast. Which may be deliberate—it begins to wear on the children, too, exposed to life outside their insulated world en route to their mother’s funeral.
Family members experience a variety of forms of grief, but the film never tries to claim any of them is the right way; it just lets them unfold naturally. Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), the middle boy who blames dad for mom’s death, is the hardest to watch. His anger manifests itself in the brows above his innocent eyes and in his desire to take to the average way of life when he is exposed to how the average American child is brought up. He’s the rebel – he wants out of the DIY-world he was raised in. The film doesn’t blame Rellian, but it doesn’t blame his father, either. Ben is never the hero or the villain; he’s just a dad trying to raise his children. While his ways are unconventional and perhaps unbelievable, his intentions appear to be the parental norm: to do what is best for the children.
Mortensen is the main act here as a grieving widower trying to avoid grieving, but his co-stars upstage him at almost every turn. George McKay as the oldest child, Bo, proves to be a quiet star. He never gives too much, even though Bo is so earnest that it would be easy to overplay his innocence. He has the subtlety of Paul Dano at his best; it would be no surprise if Captain Fantastic does for McKay what Little Miss Sunshine did for Dano. Frank Langella stars as the religious father-in-law Jack, both foil and mirror to Ben. As a father grieving his child, his paternal instincts kick in. He wants a traditional life for his grandchildren, and while his gruff demeanor and rich-guy attitude don’t appear to be what these children really need, Langella treads the villain/hero line with grace and conviction.
After Jack forbids Ben and his children from coming to the funeral, they crash it anyway, attempting to hijack the show and make it what mom would have wanted. But when the camera rests on her parents, the question arises of who a funeral service is for – the dead or those left behind? The tension between the two sides of the family makes the case for the latter much more than it does for the former.
Though the central story revolves around death, Captain Fantastic never asks for tears; that’s not how this family operates. The mother wanted her funeral to be one thing—a celebration – and the film grants that wish over the tone. There is mental illness and infighting within the extended family and hurt feelings and emotions so bottled up they come out like a shaken up liter of Coke – quick, messy, and all at once. “I know nothing!” Bo yells at his father. We know that’s not totally true; there is a table of college acceptance letters to prove it. But we believe him because there is so much pain caught in his throat and streaming from his eyes. Bo and his siblings knew only the experiences their parents created for them, a life that is celebrated but that also must close by the end of the film as the family ventures into something new, something not quite fantastical but nonetheless fantastic.