“Captain Fantastic” is the best new movie I’ve seen all year – by far. I wouldn’t miss it, if I were you.
No, it is not a comic book superhero movie. It presents us with another kind of extreme American fantasy altogether – a large family of self-exiles from American society who live, as much as possible, off the land as outlaws. They are a tiny community unto themselves.
The movie is brilliant and sad and moving and funny as hell.
Who could have imagined that the death of the hippie dream of the 1960s would make for such a sweet and unexpectedly powerful film? Not me. But here it is.
It’s about a man named Ben (Viggo Mortensen) with six children from preteen little ones to late teens, all of whom live a “natural life” in a rustic compound in the woods with no plumbing and minimal contact, at best, with the outside world. The kids don’t go to school but are home-schooled by a brilliant father with the highest possible standards. Preteen kids read “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Middlemarch.” When a pubescent daughter is discovered outside the usual syllabus and well into Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Ben doesn’t panic. Instead, he’s pleased and asks her to articulate her feelings about what she’s reading – which she does to an absolutely hair-raising degree of insight.
Nor is that all the unconventional home schooling these kids have been getting. The oldest son (George McKay) is college age. He has secretly applied to colleges and, get this, has gotten into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford and Brown. In a terrific scene, his youngest sister – an adorable scamp who never takes off her animal skin hat – is set up against her two conventionally schooled cousins to explain what they all know about the Bill of Rights.
She tells everyone – fully and articulately. Her two older cousins haven’t a clue what Ben is asking about.
But this is not a movie about insufferable book-smart brats. That same grown boy is covered with blood and mud in the movie’s utterly arresting opening after slitting the throat of a deer he has captured by hand. Says his father – also covered in mud for camouflage with his son – “today the boy is dead. (Pause) And in his place is a man.” To whom he gives the deer’s heart – which the new “man” then bites into as if it were a ripe peach.
The hippie dream of the ’60s dies hard, but it does die. And that’s what this profound and hugely entertaining movie is about. To anyone who thinks that ’60s hippiedom is a foreign land of no significance to any millennial (not to mention wised-up baby boomer), I’d say not so fast. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a name that may be known to few besides this family, but it doesn’t matter when his ideas are so alive inside the ideas and yearnings of so many who wouldn’t know him from a goalie for the Detroit Red Wings.
The family drives around on a bus when they have to go someplace. What’s so funny about the movie is what happens when they collide with each other (“No esperanto on the bus!” is Dad’s rule to further promote free familial communication among siblings) and with the outside world.
These are kids, after all, whose oldest has to tell Dad in exasperation that he’s not a “Trotskyist” anymore, he’s a “Maoist.” They’re kids who don’t celebrate Christmas but take a day off from home school and get presents on “Noam Chomsky Day.” (I howled at that one; it is beautifully elaborated in the film, too.)
But the snake of reality has slithered into permanent residence in this leftist nouveau-hippie Eden. The reason there’s no Mom in this big, crazily resourceful family is that she’s in the hospital where she’s being treated for being bipolar. (Or, as Dad explains as clinically and educationally as possible, for her deficiency in serotonin.)
When she dies, the family piles into the bus and tries to decide whether or not to defy Grandpa and go to New Mexico for her funeral.
When the snake of reality bites, it does a serious number on this family’s ongoing fantasy of existence.
All the laughing we’ve been doing with them turns into anxiety over these amazing kids and wizardly father. They suspect they’re freaks but don’t quite know how sadly freakish they are. We watch the agony of their finding out.
The movie was written and directed by Matt Ross, an actor with a boatload of familiar credits. All the children’s performances are juicy and good but, of course, it is Ben who carries this movie and lays so gently but intractably in our heart and head when it’s over.
Mortensen is an actor who has often proved himself very good (in David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” for instance) but never before with this paternally gentle love and ultimately, anguish. This is a great film performance, as great as he is ever likely to give.
Dad has been the amazing captain of this family’s life-as-lived-fantasy. Reality’s conquest – brought about by a loving grandfather (Frank Langella) – is as tender as it can be under the circumstances but it cannot be denied.
Dreams don’t entirely die when they end. They’re just revealed as dreams, that’s all.
I love this movie for a very simple reason. It’s very lovable.
4 stars (Out of four)
Title: “Captain Fantastic”
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and George McKay
Director: Matt Ross
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: R for language, violence and male frontal nudity.
The Lowdown: A large family lives on the land as self-exiles from society.