Sad to say, the conclusion of Captain Fantastic does not live up to the quality of the rest of the film.
Summer movies tend to fall into certain categories—comic book blockbusters, kid-friendly animation, teenage date movies, stinkers with minimal hopes for either prestige or box office, etc.—so when a really good and original summer release comes along, it’s a special pleasure. Case in point: Captain Fantastic, the second film directed by Matt Ross (“Gavin Belson” on Silicon Valley, “Alby Grant” on Big Love). It’s already a big success on the festival circuit—among other honors, Ross won the Un Certain Regard prize for this film at Cannes, and Captain Fantastic was selected for the Golden Space Needle Award at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Ross wastes no time getting things going—the first scene shows a young man (Bodevan, played by George MacKay) stalking a deer and killing it with a hunting knife. The violence of this act contrasts with the beauty of the Pacific Northwest woods, and the successful hunt and kill symbolizes the young man’s passage from boy to man, as declared by his proud father Ben (Viggo Mortensen). We soon learn that Ben lives off the grid with his six kids, whom he leads in strenuous physical training and rigorous academic study. Ben is the king of his own little kingdom, which mixes elements of hippiedom with a survivalist ethos, and he rules it as a benevolent dictator.
The kids are all healthy and happy and smart, and also remarkably nice towards each other—there’s no brattiness or sibling rivalries evident, which will astonish anyone who’s ever raised a family. The first cracks in their world appear when Ben receives news that his wife Leslie, who was being treated for a mental illness, committed suicide by slashing her wrists. Leslie’s care was paid for by her father, Jack (Frank Langella), who plans to give her a conventional church funeral in Arizona, where he lives. Ben takes this as a personal insult (Leslie wanted a Buddhist funeral) but doesn’t plan to contest it because Jack warned him to not show up at the funeral. If it ended there, we’d have no movie, and in fact Ben decides to drive himself and the kids there in a converted school bus.
Ben reveals some of his less lovely aspects along the way—among other things, he leads the kids in robbing a grocery store, encourages one of the girls to kill a farmer’s sheep, and pointlessly disrupts the conventional household of the kids’ aunt and uncle (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn). We also learn on this trip that Bodevan has been secretly applying to colleges and was admitted to some of the most prestigious institutions in the country (Harvard and MIT among them), and rather than congratulating his son, Ben takes this news as a betrayal.
One of the younger boys, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton; all the kids have names that would not be out of Game of Thrones, invented by their parents to emphasize that each of them is a unique individual) also challenges his father’s authority, although most of his attempts come to nothing. What Rellian wants is not terrible—mainly to go to school and lead a normal life, so he can learn about all the things that you can’t get from reading books—but they’re anathema to Ben’s way of thinking, and he has no time to listen to anyone’s ideas other than his own. Rather disappointingly, the two teenage daughters, Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso), are stuck in the background, but as we learn more about Ben and his relationship with his wife, that may seem to be not just typical screenwriting but also emblematic of the power relationships in this family.
Sad to say, the conclusion of Captain Fantastic does not live up to the quality of the rest of the film, relying on the offscreen transformation of key characters rather than staying true to the premises established earlier. Still, most of Captain Fantastic is so good that I can overlook the fact that Ross (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed) didn’t quite know how to bring so original a film to a satisfactory end. | Sarah Boslaugh