Although Viggo Mortensen may be the main character of Captain Fantastic, and his character Ben Cash the Captain of the title, George Mackay almost steals the whole film with his biggest role yet as Ben’s son Bo. Having showed potential on British TV for a while, before a wonderful leading performance in 2014’s Pride, Captain Fantastic marks his entry into the American mainstream, and he seizes the opportunity with gusto. Wringing laughs out of otherwise tragic moments whilst never losing the pathos, it’s a jumpy and energetic showing that perfectly captures the electric uncertainty of entering adulthood. It just so happens that the childhood that Bo is leaving behind is one that has been defined by living in almost complete isolation in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.
Mortensen’s Ben lives with his seven kids in a commune of his and his wife’s making, eschewing the normal, capitalist way of life in favour of hunting for their own food, training for wilderness survival, and celebrating Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas. It’s a kooky premise, and writer-director Matt Ross deserves to be commended for keeping well away from the generally insufferable trope of ‘modern life is all bad, why do kids use phones?’ His script doesn’t take sides; both Ben’s world and the ‘real’ world have their advantages, and this carefully balanced stance allows Ross to focus on building deep and lovable characters.
Ben loves his kids, and is, despite their ignorance of standard societal customs, giving them a holistic education. Yet he can’t see the possibly negative long-term effects of his actions, and in his quest to get away from the oppressiveness of urban living, has created a sort of dictatorship in the forest, where his only subjects are children. Ben’s wife is in a mental institution for bipolar disorder, and when she kills herself, there’s an unshakeable feeling – for Ben and some of the more insightful kids – that she might have been alright if she’d stayed in normal society.
Ben’s father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) openly takes this view, and it’s his demand that Ben stay away from the funeral that kicks off plot in earnest. Initially deciding to obey Jack (albeit under threat of arrest), Ben can’t ignore his children’s clamouring to see their mother one last time. They hit the road, hunting sheep, stealing groceries, and giving each other gifts of very deadly weapons on the way to the funeral. When they arrive, Jack doesn’t go through with his threat, but hits Ben in a different way – he files for custody of the children.
Even when the stakes are raised like this, Ross doesn’t devolve his film into a hero vs villain story. All the kids are battered, bruised, and scraped from their training, and one of the boys, Rell (Nicholas Hamilton), is desperate to be normal. From an outsider’s point of view, Jack is in the right, but we know that, Rell aside, Ben’s kids adore him and recoil at the idea of living in what they know as ‘a fascist, capitalist, dictatorship’.
Even the youngest, Nai (Charlie Shotwell), repeats and understands this mantra, and Ross doesn’t lose sight of the fact that 7 year olds learning about political philosophy is really quite funny. Captain Fantastic has plenty of laughs in it and though Mackay gets most of them, particularly in a scene where he has his first kiss, the whole (ironically-named) Cash clan gets a moment to shine. It’s no surprise that Ross has a strong grasp on the comedy side of his film, given that he’s probably currently best known for his sterling work as Gavin Belson on the often very funny Silicon Valley.
Mortensen is as excellent as one would expect in the lead, and seeing him as a philosophical wild-man seems to make perfect sense. He softens his naturally intimidating presence enough to make Ben a charming lead, but never loses it completely. His is a very believable portrayal of a man who is desperately convincing himself that his life is not in crisis, providing a resonant emotional anchor for the film. Thankfully, the younger kids, led by eldest girl Vespyr (Annalise Basso), are also great, decidedly not annoying and, vitally, sharing a natural chemistry with one another.
With such a good script and uniformly excellent performances, it’s a shame that Captain Fantastic isn’t more interesting visually. The vast forests look beautiful, but Ross’ direction is, on the whole, pretty workmanlike. However, getting such good displays from the child actors shows plenty of skill at marshalling a cast, and given that this is only Ross’ second film as director, he has plenty of time to find a more distinct visual voice. Captain Fantastic is a smart and funny film with a great cast and real emotional stakes, and I’m very much looking forward to whatever Ross has in store for his career going forward.