At the Movies “Captain Fantastic” and the Limits of Escapsim

If, on an upcoming summer day, you find yourself torn between going for a hike and going to the movies, “Captain Fantastic” will help you split the difference.

 

By Noah Gittell

 

If, on an upcoming summer day, you find yourself torn between going for a hike and going to the movies, “Captain Fantastic” will help you split the difference. The indie drama lets you experience all the good stuff the natural world has to offer, but without the bugs, dirt, or body odor.

 

Writer/director Matt Ross has crafted a hipster fantasy so playfully subversive, you might not even notice how little substance there actually is. Viggo Mortensen is Ben, patriarch of a family that has taken to the woods to live completely off the grid. For years, the children have grown up learning to hunt their own food, make their own clothes, and rely on each other for company. Their homespun education is both physical and mental; by day, they work on their physical endurance and learn the art of self-defense (practicing on each other). By night, they bang drums and read Noam Chomsky.

 

The politics of this crew may seem conflicted. Are they libertarians or socialists? Truth is, they’re neither. Although the film has the feel of a political manifesto, Ben does not fit into any political ideology. He is an escape artist, nothing more, and one of the biggest failures of the film is that it doesn’t recognize this. “Captain Fantastic” thumbs its nose at every societal convention but can’t turn its critical eye on itself.  Instead, it sets up a pitched battle between Ben’s philosophy and the real world, and the deck is stacked in his favor.

 

Their idyllic existence comes crashing down when their mother falls ill and dies in the hospital. Despite stern warnings to stay away from the funeral from Ben’s grieving father-in-law (Frank Langella), the crew votes to go anyway, so they loads up into their bus for a road trip to see mom off. It’s their first extended foray into the real world, and these early scenes, in which the family’s wide-eyed idealism clashes and often defeats the conventions of the modern world, are the film’s best.

 

When “Captain Fantastic” revels in its pop-subversiveness, it’s worth going along for the ride. Ben fakes a heart attack in a supermarket to give his kids time to abscond with a night’s worth of groceries, and you can’t help but cheer him on. Later, the family fends off a state trooper by posing as Christian fundamentalists out to convert him. If you don’t crack a smile at that, you should check your pulse.

 

At its best, “Captain Fantastic” is defined by a generosity of spirit. It’s a film that really likes all its characters, even its ostensible villain. Langella’s character goes from cartoonishly evil authoritarian to kindly old grandfather in the blink of an eye. But maybe it should have been a little less generous. Ross doesn’t know how – or is uninterested in – examining his characters in any meaningful way, which isn’t the same thing as loving them. One could argue it’s less respectful to them to simply shine a light of their best qualities and lead critical examination on the side of the road.

 

In the final third, Ross tries to steer the plot towards some sort of reckoning, in which Ben comes to terms with all of the ways in which his idealism has held his children back. One character calls it “child endangerment,” but the film doesn’t truly grapple with that question. Mortensen tries his best to embody that ambiguity in a magnetic performance that is also icily detached. He is always an engaging presence, but around him, the film’s narrative pendulum simply swings back and forth, alternating between a political manifesto and a domestic drama with no discernible weight to either one.

 

Finally, the film passes by any number of appropriately ambiguous endings and instead opts for a group sing-a-long to “Sweet Child of Mine” (seriously) under sunny skies. What could have been an incisive family drama with political overtones ends up a Volkswagen Beetle commercial, wasting a strong performance, a rollicking road trip spirit, and a couple of your hours that would have been better spent outdoors.

 

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue