© Bleecker Street.
The beginning of writer/director Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic feels like both a naturalistic utopia and a cult of dangerous ideas. Bodevan (George MacKay), the eldest of Ben Cash's (Viggo Mortensen) six children, hides in the woods in camouflage as he waits to attack a deer. After the slaughter, Ben smears the animal's blood across his son's face and offers him the heart to consume. This is the Cash family's version of a Bar Mitzvah, Bodevan's rite of passage into manhood.
Ben raises his six children in a hand-built tepee in a forest in the Pacific Northwest. They hunt, kill, and cook their own game, even the youngest kids. They grow their own crops, make their own clothes from animal hides, and each day they gather to do rigorous physical and educational training. As dreamy as that sounds for anyone with an affinity for living off the earth, you can't help but ask: Is this one man's obsession with Walden gone too far? At first, the kids seem engineered, or too perfect to be real, leading you to question if Ben is just a renegade hippie sheltering his children from the dangers of society à la the real-life father of The Wolfpack or the deranged parents of Dogtooth. But as we get to know this family of creative, brilliant, and compassionate children, it becomes clear Ben has figured out something few parents have.
Each of the children have unique names made up by their parents – "There's only one of us in the world. We're each unique," Bodevan explains to a city girl. This is the type of family that celebrates Noam Chomsky Day in place of Christmas, that encourages expression and debate, and where "interesting" is a "non-word" banned from conversation. Another unusual part of Ben's parenting philosophy is his frankness and honesty with subjects considered taboo and inappropriate for children. When asked by his youngest son Nai (Charlie Shotwell), "What is rape?" Ben gives a straightforward explanation. This leads to a hilarious exchange when the curious Nai asks more follow-up questions like "What is sexual intercourse?" and in shock, "But why would a man stick his penis in a vagina?" The most blunt explanation comes when tragedy prompts the family to leave their paradise in the wild. "Your mom is dead," Ben tells his children one night. "She killed herself, she finally did it."
We learn Ben's wife Leslie (Trin Miller) suffered from bipolar disorder and that her bitter father (Frank Langella) has threatened to call the police if Ben and his family show up at her funeral. Grouping together in memory of their mom, the family embarks on a journey to New Mexico in a customized school bus named Steve. It's during this road trip that Captain Fantastic turns into one of the most moving and uplifting stories of an American family. As they interact with city folk, go to a local diner with no "real" food, and get pulled over by a cop it's apparent how strong of a unit this family is despite their difference from those around them. It's here, against the backdrop of the modern suburban family, that the unusual rituals of the Cashs become more "normal."
The most beautiful accomplishment of Ross' inspiring Captain Fantastic is in questioning how we evaluate parenting and how to prepare children for the world. Though Ben's sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband (Steve Zahn) disapprove of his and his late wife's alternative methods, he questions theirs just as much. When placed side-by-side, which family appears more bizarre? Is raising your kids Buddhist in the wilderness, explaining the truth about mortality and teaching them how to find their own food outlandish? Or is sending them to public school, sugar-coating mental illness and suicide, and letting them play video games at the dinner table a better approach? Ross' film manages to find fault and praise in both by offering a look at an unorthodox family that has found more joy, enlightenment and love by reverting to the basics. Everyone has their rituals, but growth can only come in finding ways to adapt.
With its delightful mix of comedy and poignant family drama, Ross' film is reminiscent of the feel-good heartache of Little Miss Sunshine. Though Ross is best known as an actor, including roles in American Horror Story, Silicon Valley, and American Psycho, such experiences has served him well as a writer and director. Each character in the family drama is rich with uniqueness and personality, from the silly antics of the nudist Nai, the fearlessness of Vespyr (Annalise Basso), and the astute intellect of the second youngest Zaja (Shree Crooks). The film has the best cast of young actors in years, as well as a great supporting cast filled out by Ann Dowd, Missi Pyle, Nicholas Hamilton, and Samantha Isler. And then there's Mortensen whose warmth makes Ben one of the most admirable movie dads, a strong leader with a loving and playful heart. Just as Ben provides the foundation for his kids to thrive on, Mortensen brings the film from good to excellent. Captain Fantastic should be remembered as one of the best films to come out of Sundance, and, if it has a life beyond the festival, maybe one of the best of the year.