Viggo Mortensen goes back on the road in this Sundance heartwarmer, a thoughtful drama about an unconventional father determined to raise his kids – all six of them – the way that he sees fit. Together with his wife Leslie (Trin Miller), Ben Cash (Mortensen) has created an off-the-grid utopia in the forests of the Pacific Northwest: one in which outdoor pursuits, survival skills and intellectual discussions have moulded their children into “philosopher kings” in the making.
When Leslie dies, though, Ben and his brood are forced to re-connect with a modern world their eccentric upbringing has left them ill-equipped to deal with. Not only that but Ben must also confront father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella), a stern patriarch with as much disdain for Ben’s choice of lifestyle as Ben has for the conveniences of consumerist culture.
Based on his own childhood experiences of commune living, Matt Ross’ film has lots of fun contrasting Ben’s feral offspring with their new environment. Youngest daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks) is baffled, for example, when her well-meaning aunt (Kathryn Hahn) serves a store-bought rotisserie chicken for dinner; while a first date for oldest son Bodevan (Sunshine on Leith’s George MacKay) with a girl he meets on a campsite (Erin Moriarty) leads to a cringe-worthy proposal of marriage.
Yet Captain Fantastic also has serious questions to ask, about the role of a parent and the responsibilities of fatherhood. Is Ben building a family, or a cult? Is he the hero the title suggests, or a self-deluding villain? And is there a point when sticking to one’s principles can slip over into neglect, or worse still, even child abuse?
Jack would undoubtedly say as much, though he’s no less dogged in his beliefs, what with his determination to give Leslie – a Buddhist – a Christian burial. It’s this that Ben sets out to thwart, gathering his large clan on board their battered battle bus ‘Steve’ and heading off to gatecrash a funeral he’s been forbidden from attending.
Comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine are inevitable here, but also instructive. Where that film could perhaps be accused of reducing its characters to a procession of story-furthering screwballs, Ross takes the time to flesh out his ensemble as individuals: no mean feat when two of them are twin sisters (Annalise Basso and Samantha Isler) and another sibling (Nicholas Hamilton) strikes a somewhat predictable pose of stroppy pre-teen rebellion.
MacKay, the cast’s lone Brit, is especially effective, capturing Bodevan’s feelings of dislocation and detachment perfectly. It is Mortensen, though, who holds the whole thing together, his soft-voiced demeanour and hippie tresses masking a man whose fierce devotion to his progeny doesn’t always preclude working against their own best interests.