A quirky, unconventional family setting off on a road trip across the States in a rather elaborate minibus, is a specialised sub-genre that Little Miss Sunshine flourished in. But Matt Ross’s sophomore feature film Captain Fantastic provides some stiff competition, and while undoubtedly charming in parts, hilarious in others, and deeply moving the rest of the time, the film just hasn’t quite got that same spark that allows for it to be nearly as special a piece of cinema as its 2006 counterpart.
Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, an anti-establishment, Noam Chomsky worshipper, and idealistic father who refuses to conform to societal rules, and instead raises his six kids the way he wants to – out in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, devoted he may be, but damaging all the same. For he teaches his offspring to climb, to hunt and to survive, and while they’d make remarkable adventurers, they’re in no way equipped to deal with the harsh severity of the real world, and though well-read and academically intellectual, socially, they know nothing about the world. When their mother dies, and they’re denied access to the funeral from their bereaving grandfather (Frank Langella), they decide to cross the country regardless, and give their mother the send off their feel she’s deserving of.
Matt Ross triumphs in remaining impartial throughout Captain Fantastic, never pointing the finger or ridiculing anybody for their lifestyle choices. So while you appreciate that Ben is taking matters too far and could be damaging his children in the long run – selfish in how he imposes his own ideals onto his kids without considering what will come of them when they need to get jobs and make a living – he remains endearingly affable and naïve, and you can comprehend why somebody may live this way, for his refusal to bow down to the big corporations and live off the land is admirable in some ways, albeit greatly unappealing. It’s having such a flawed protagonist in the lead which enriches this piece of cinema, helped along by Mortensen’s absorbing and nuanced performance. He’s matched by the young actors that make up his children too – particularly impressive is George MacKay, who continues his fledging career in cinema with a distinctively vulnerable performance, something we’ve seen him do so well since he burst onto the scene, capturing a vital sense of fragility that makes for an empathetic entry point into this world.
There’s a strong chance that Captain Fantastic could be be considered during the award’s season, given its ability to balance comedy and pathos so comfortably, making for a film that feels as though it could well be received on such terms. You never know, perhaps one day we’ll all be celebrating Noam Chomsky day instead of Christmas.