To say that Captain Fantastic is one of the finest counterculture road movies since Easy Rider is both accurate and absurd.
It’s absurd because instead of two bikers searching for meaning and literally burning out in the American heartland in the turbulent ’60s, Captain Fantastic is about a father traveling with his six children in a Winnebago in Obama’s America. Instead of Steppenwolf, it features the ambient Icelandic soundscapes of Sigur Ros collaborator Alex Somers, which get nobody’s motor runnin’.
But the new film does contain a memorable encounter with a police officer, an awkward scene in a diner and characters clad in buckskin, and there’s the inescapable reference embedded in the name: Captain Fantastic, to which the film’s grizzled patriarch is once referred, conjures Captain America, Dennis Hopper’s ironic nom de plume.
Most of all, the films are linked by a kind of fin de siècle feeling, which in Captain Fantastic ‘s case seems to hit its protagonist about 50 years too late, and which requires a blunt reckoning to accept that the times are, you know, a-changin’.
Viggo Mortensen, unrecognizable behind a Unabomber beard, plays Ben, whose wife Leslie (Trin Miller) suffers from manic depression and who raises their kids — Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai, each name a forced assertion of flower-child distinction — in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. They live off the grid, scavenging and killing their food while being home-schooled by Ben, which usually involves reading heady science texts and classic literature by firelight.
He also teaches them how to survive post-apocalyptically — to fight off invaders with knives and crossbows, to scale mountains in torrential downpours. Complaints like “Dad, Zaja took the boning knife again!” are common refrains. In the warmer moments of this communal utopia, impromptu jam sessions break out among the family, with Ben’s acoustic guitar noodling slowly blossoming into a joyous orchestra.
Along with this survivalist ethos and a seemingly first-rate education — his children know six languages — Ben’s kids must also adopt his anti-establishment politics, lest they present an effective counter-argument against them. His oldest son can split the finest hairs of socialist ideology, asserting to his dad that he’s “not a Trotskyist anymore — I’m a Maoist!” His youngest daughter can mount an effective rhetorical argument against the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, while her suburban, public-schooled cousins, six grades advanced, have trouble articulating what the Bill of Rights is.
Musty anthems like “stick it to the man” and “fight the power” — phrases evoking, well, the days of Easy Rider — roll of the children’s tongues with the automation of evening prayer. And in a scene almost too precious to accept even in this movie’s universe, they celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday every year instead of Christmas (it’s Dec. 7, in case you were wondering).
This bubble of left-wing intellectual purity must eventually pop, and it does, when a tragic incident prompts Ben and his offspring to decamp from their self-imposed isolation and see, for the first time, the fruited plain. There is much humor in these revelations: the kids’ faces, aghast at the violent video games of their peers and the unhealthy bodies of so many Americans; a brief diner stop that prompts a child to inquire, “Dad, what’s a milkshake?”; eldest child Bodevan’s (George MacKay) sweet and embarrassing courtship attempt with a girl at a campground.
Is Ben a cult leader or a protective father? Do his children cling to him out of love of Stockholm syndrome? Surely, conservative audiences will view Captain Fantastic the way liberals view Jesus Camp, morally chiding the patriarch’s indoctrinarian upbringing and hoping the children can transcend it.
Though writer-director Matt Ross is sympathetic to Ben’s ideals, he’s clearly no hero, for reasons that accumulate during the traumatic sojourn. All of Ross’ characters are three-dimensional, and his compassion is prismatic. He allows for valid rebukes even from Leslie’s stubborn Christian traditionalist father (Frank Langella), who emerges as Ben’s chief antagonist.
This film is observant toward both unorthodox parenting methods and the arguments against them; it’s filled with pain and humanity no matter where you stand politically, vivified with the three Rs of a great tear-jerking melodrama — regret, redemption and reconciliation. It’s infused with the kind of time-trod wisdom the naïve bikers of Easy Rider could never wrap their bandannaed heads around: that happiness, as the Buddhists say, is a matter of balance.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Director: Matt Ross; Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn; Distributor: Bleecker Street; Rating: R; Opens: Friday in Palm Beach County theaters; July 29 in Broward and Miami-Dade theaters