Captain Fantastic Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler. Directed by Matt Ross. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
Ben Cash seems like a terrible father. As played by Viggo Mortensen in writer-director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, Ben is one of those insufferable progressives who shuns the conveniences of modern society for both himself and his family, but is only able to do so thanks to being comfortably wealthy. It’s hard to tell whether Ross wants to endorse or condemn Ben’s point of view, and that’s one of the best things about this uneven drama, which doesn’t know when to let its story of an unconventional family end. It starts with the idyllic life of Ben and his six kids (three boys and three girls) in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, where they kill their food with their bare hands, climb mountains with virtually no safety gear, and study advanced physics and the works of Noam Chomsky.
Their clearly unsustainable existence is upended by the news that Ben’s wife and the mother of his children, who’s been in a residential facility receiving treatment for depression, has committed suicide. Clearly not everything was perfect in this woodland paradise, but the family rallies when Ben’s conservative in-laws insist that he not attend his late wife’s funeral. The kids insist on going, so everyone piles into the family’s retrofitted school bus (named Steve, of course) for a cross-country road trip. Ross makes it clear that these sheltered kids, ranging in age from around 6 or 7 to the teenage Bo (George MacKay), who’s been secretly applying to colleges, are not equipped to live among average people, but the movie doesn’t lean too hard on culture-clash comedy. It takes seriously both Ben’s hardline leftist values and the difficulties they create for his kids, and even when the family finally confronts the disapproving parents of Ben’s late wife, Ross doesn’t make them into cartoonish villains.
That’s not to say that some moments in Captain Fantastic, on both ends of the political spectrum, don’t come off as cartoonish, and the longer the movie goes on, past several points that would offer satisfying emotional beats to end on, the less convincing it becomes. Ben’s alternative parenting techniques make sense when they’re put in contrast to the way average Americans raise their kids, but by the third act, Ross has turned this troubled, possibly misguided man into a martyr, and the movie loses its grounding. The sun-dappled visual style and cutesy soundtrack eventually become cloying, and Ross creates an upbeat ending that does a disservice to the complex drama that preceded it. A movie about challenging conventional wisdom eventually succumbs to just that.