Review: Captain Fantastic Isn't Afraid To Go Off-Grid

Nick Chen

If a teenager is unfamiliar with Star Trek, is it a sign of progressive parenting or child abuse? That’s up for debate in Captain Fantastic, a comic reversal of Plato’s Cave whereby a tightknit family depart their hippy utopia to integrate with the greyness of modern society. Written and directed by Matt Ross, it’s an engaging road movie fuelled by steady one-liners and oddball energy, but above all, it showcases Viggo Mortensen’s magnetism as Ben, a loving father whose fairytale perfectionism perilously echoes the horrors of Dogtooth, Mustang and The Wolfpack.

“What we’ve created may be unique in all of human existence,” Ben informs his six beaming children. “We’ve created a paradise.” At first glance, this assessment sounds reasonable. The self-sufficient siblings roam freely in idyllic forests belonging to a picture book. They hunt their meals, partake in impromptu musical jams, and are scarily knowledgeable thanks to rigorous home-schooling (in this case, home is where the caravan is). However, when their mother dies, so too does the ten-year parenting experiment, and all attention turns to crashing the funeral from which Ben (and by proxy, the children) have been banned.

It’s an engaging road movie fuelled by oddball energy, but above all it showcases Viggo Mortensen’s magnetism.

So yes, Captain Fantastic is another road trip dramedy from Sundance, packed with overfamiliar themes of grief and redemption in the backseat. But there are more original, complex ideas at play. For starters, the subsequent culture clash in suburbia is inevitably juicy and establishes the film’s moral conundrum: when a father is as well-meaning and principled as Ben, at what point should an outsider intervene? After all, the kids are kind-hearted, exceptionally athletic and imbued by their father’s counterculture ethos. Untainted by social media, they’re naturally inquisitive experts on subjects ranging from taxidermy to Khmer Rouge. If Ben believed in capitalism, he could write a bestselling parenting manual.

Drama ensues when a funeral threatens the family's entire way of life.

That said, certain life skills aren’t taught in books, and Ross maximises the fish-out-of-water humour. The children’s inability to recognise everyday terms – Nike, Adidas, Dr. Spock – would leave them prone to bullying if they weren’t raised with self-assurance. But an awkward encounter between the eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) and a flirtatious stranger is so painful, it’s only viewable through the gaps between your fingers. (Ross plays Gavin Belson, the socially oblivious CEO of Silicon Valley, and understands the cadences of cringe comedy.)

Viggo Mortensen's Ben offers an unconventional approach to modern parenting.

For all the film’s strengths, it’s unimaginable without Mortensen. At the crux, Ben is a lawbreaker whose outdoor passions threaten the children’s short-term health and long-term social lives. When Ben’s in-laws threaten him with legal action, there’s little doubt he would lose a custody battle. Yet who could argue with Ben, the Captain Fantastic of the title, when he’s embodied by Mortensen’s romanticism? The Danish actor not only looks the part, audiences know him as a multilingual artist with a fondness for poetry and travel. In many ways, it’s a happy parallel to the forlorn father character he played in last year’s Jauja.

The film poses a moral conundrum: when a father is as well-meaning and principled as Ben, at what point should an outsider intervene?

Mortensen’s charm is also a trick. Leading by example, he instils honesty in his offspring, and answers their questions – whether it concerns sex or their mother’s suicide – with full emotional frankness. Nevertheless, isn’t it deceptive to shield them from a conventional childhood? It’s not an outright lie to joke that cola is “poisoned water”, and neither is it malicious to celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas. Instead, there’s enough grey area to keep the narrative in head-scratching territory. When Ben’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) inquire how they survive on minimal finances, the accusation is yelled with terror for the children’s safety, but underneath it is genuine curiosity – someone’s slipped through the net, and the suckers with fixed addresses are sick with jealousy.

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