It’s hard to know whether “Captain Fantastic,” a new drama starring Viggo Mortensen as a task master father raising a brood of philosopher kings in a forested paradise right out of Plato’s Republic, is a condemnation of the American Dream or parody of hippie ideals or both. By the time the unconventional family celebrates Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas it’s hard to know whether to giggle at the absurdity of the situation or cry at the earnestness of the film’s intent.
Mortensen is Ben, father of six, husband of Leslie (Trin Miller). They have made their home deep in the forest of the Pacific Northwest. As Leslie lies dying in a faraway hospital, Ben puts his kids through a boot camp of rigorous physical and intellectual training. They rock climb, participate in coming of age rituals, learn about quantum entanglement and at night sit around a campfire eating the days kill and reading books like “The Brothers Karamazov.”
They are a tight unit untouched by the outside world. Home schooled and trained the kids each speak six languages and are all, even the youngest ones, self sufficient, but is Ben helping or hurting the kids? Does his unwillingness to bend in his extreme opinions make him a caring father or a fascist who has not prepared his kids to be out in the world?
The answer to that question comes, sort of, when he makes an announcement. “Last night mommy killed herself. She finally did it. Your mother is dead and nothing is going to change.” A cross-country trip to Leslie’s funeral, a place where Ben is not welcome, makes him confront his ideas on parenting.
The most fantastic thing about “Captain Fantastic” is Mortensen’s performance. As Ben he is a plain spoken, rough-hewn man so convinced of his correctness he is willing to risk the lives of his children. Underneath the bluster, however, is a man who cares deeply about his family and his late wife. He’s a man of extremes—both in beliefs and actions—but his love and his grief are heartfelt, even if they are run through Ben’s unforgiving filter. Mortensen makes an unlikeable character likeable and that goes a long way to making the film enjoyable.
Otherwise the journey to Leslie’s final resting place is an occasionally bumpy ride. The feral kids speak Esperanto, pontificate on the US Constitution and sit, gobsmacked, at the sight of their first videogame and it is in these moments that parody seems to nudge its way into the storytelling. The hippie heaven Ben builds for his kids is less a nirvana than a cage to protect them from what he sees as the evils of the world. He teaches them to survive in the wild, but it seems unlikely any of them could survive a solo subway ride.
“Captain Fantastic” loses more steam in a rushed final act, but luckily Mortensen is there to keep it interesting.