‘Captain Fantastic’: Sundance Review

Captain Fantastic Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Crowdpleasing for the right kind of crowd, but about as radical as a kale crisp.

Viggo Mortensen stars as the head of an eccentric family of home-schooled prodigies living off the grid in actor turned writer-director Matt Ross' follow-up to '28 Hotel Rooms.'

The old flower-power slogan “Stick it to the Man” may be a motto for the dropout family at the center of Captain Fantastic, but the Man isn’t likely to feel especially threatened by this anodyne, at heart deeply conventional comedy-drama. Writer-director Matt Ross’ follow-up to his directorial debut 28 Hotel Rooms starts off promisingly, celebrating an unplugged lifestyle that’s usually the butt of jokes or worse in most mainstream culture. Especially refreshing, even radical, is its sympathy for characters who read for pleasure and value rigorous thought. Unfortunately, by the end, it’s gone as mushy and ragged as a homespun hemp blanket. Lead Viggo Mortensen is charismatic as ever as the family’s shaggy polymath patriarch, and the young actors playing his kids are button-cute, especially when swearing. But its dramatic flaws and the problems of nudity and language it will pose for ratings boards means it’s unlikely to start any revolution outside the niche distribution circuit.

In an isolated stretch of forest somewhere in Washington State, Ben Cash (Mortensen) and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) have been raising their six children far from the modern world, home-schooling them in an eccentric curriculum that includes M-theory, Marxism and martial arts. With Leslie away in the hospital for the last few months with what turns out to be bi-polar disorder, it’s left to Ben to keep the kids busy with lessons in deer-hunting with knives, jamming with homemade instruments and solo rock climbing, amongst other topics.

Perhaps due to a mix of hard graft and fortuitous genetics, each child seems to be a little genius. Eldest Bo (Pride's George Mackay) has secretly applied and been accepted not just to Harvard, but also Yale, Stanford, Princeton and Brown. We don’t learn how he plans to reconcile embracing the privileges of Ivy League education with his newfound Maoist philosophy, but that’s teens for you, full of contradictions. Next in age order come fraternal-twin girls Kielyr (Supernatural’s Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Oculus' Annalise Basso), rebellious 12-year-old Rellian (Australian Nicholas Hamilton from Strangerland), 8-year-old amateur taxidermist Zaja (American Horror Story: Hotel's Shree Crooks) and the littlest Nai (relative newcomer Charlie Shotwell), who’s always asking awkward questions like, “What’s rape?” Ben answers all queries like that with total honesty, and in return expects all of his children to be able to discuss Constitutional policy, recent developments in quantum physics and never fall back on using the banal safe word “interesting” when discussing literature.

Suddenly, the family receives a shock. Leslie (who only appears in dreams and fantasies throughout) has killed herself. Her conservative father Jack (Frank Langella) forbids Ben on the phone from coming to the funeral, and even threatens to have him arrested if he does. Determined to ensure Leslie is cremated rather than buried to honor her last will and testament, Ben decides to take the kids on the obligatory road trip across the country to New Mexico in a hacked school bus-cum-library-cum-camper van named Steve. When they need food, he teaches them to shoplift (“Operation Liberate the Food!”) and to cheer them up, they have an impromptu birthday party for Noam Chomsky, the family’s own version of Christmas.

In totally predictable fashion, the children goggle in amazement at the materialism and wastefulness of contemporary American culture, and realize how different they are from their peers. At the home of Ben’s generally supportive sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and brother-in-law (Steve Zahn), the Cash kids are mostly sneered at by their two teenage cousins, who are constantly fiddling with their phones or playing violent shooter games on their huge screen TV. But when Harper dares to challenge Ben’s parenting methods, he uses Zaja’s knowledge of the Bill of Rights to demonstrate the superiority of his pedagogical program.

Okay, it’s a cute scene, a thrilling victory for alternative crusties over suburban squares. But it’s also totally bogus, the film’s latest step into a world of daydream that’s ludicrously unconvincing (the kid really does sound like she’s just parroting the words) and manipulatively stacked to get the audience rooting for the hippies. Later on, there’s a token effort made to question Ben’s lifestyle and methods when he confronts Leslie’s eventually sympathetic parents. But the conflict is mechanical, there just to create some last-act drama, although at least for once somebody points out that Ben’s insistence on putting the kids in extreme physical danger isn’t cool — it’s a form of abuse.

The endgame sees the family making a compromise with the straight world, which raises the question of who Captain Fantastic is really for. Most radical dropouts and home-school families are unlikely to ever see it, and smart ones would recognize that the kind of results Ben and the late Leslie get with their kids are extremely unlikely. The children are idealized and implausible sock puppets, as unrealistic as the little prodigies in Wes Anderson’s films, but without the accompanying stylized flair that marks the latter's pics out as straight-up dream worlds. This is really a movie for upper-middle class hipsters who once fancied themselves firebrands and status quo-challengers in college, but now consider only buying organic food at Whole Foods and not vaccinating their kids to be radical acts.

Production companies: Bleecker Street, ShivHans Pictures, Electric City Entertainment
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George Mackay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd
Director-screenwriter: Matt Ross
Producers: Lynette Howell Taylor, Jamie Patricof, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson
Executive producers: Nimitt Mankad, Declan Baldwin
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Editor: Joseph Krings
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Composer: Alex Somers
Music supervisor: Chris Douridas
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy
Sales: Entertainment One Features

Not rated, 118 minutes