Captain Fantastic is the kind of indie movie that draws you in with an idealized version of an alternate lifestyle. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and Leslie (Trin Miller) Cash established a home in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest to raise their six children without the trivialities of the modern world: commerce, technology, or gentle childrearing.
Survival skills and critical thinking are emphasized. Every meal is hunted, grown, or picked. Education includes, between political discourse and assigned reading, rigorous physical fitness and hand-to-hand combat. The family sleeps in a makeshift one-room house, and for income, they build birdhouses to sell at the local corner store. (And “local” is stretching it. The family seems to live at least an hour away from civilization.)
When Ben learns Leslie has committed suicide in a psychiatric hospital after a long battle with bipolar disorder, the family begins a trek to her funeral where their unconventional way of life predictably and unsubtly clashes with the outside world. For a while, it’s easy to be taken with the Cash family and their idyllic, quirky lifestyle. But it doesn’t take long for the viewer to become cynical, as Ben and his kids are generally indignant about anyone living outside their world. They only see a culture where everyone is prudish and ignorant and shockingly obese.
Fish out of water
In a device that wants them to be interpreted as adorable or insightful beyond their years, the kids constantly regurgitate platitudes about life. All this novelty is cute at first, up to and including allowing a five-year-old to drink wine with dinner. But by the time Ben steps out of his trailer, fully nude, rolling his eyes at the uptight passers-by and scoffing, “It’s just a penis!” the film’s ethos has become too overbearing to be endearing.
The conflict at the core of Captain Fantastic pits Ben’s ideals against his rich and powerful father-in-law Jack’s (Frank Langella) pragmatism. It tries to reconcile that conflict by acknowledging some of the repercussions from the kids’ sheltered upbringing (for example, the eldest son proposes to a girl moments after they share his first kiss). But the film becomes too bogged down trying to justify the Cash family’s way of life, and never convincingly reaches a point of compromise.
Captain Fantastic’s climax is desperate to be as charming as the big group dance number from Little Miss Sunshine, but is just too weird and macabre to be plausible, even for the most authentic, open-minded hippies. Captain Fantastic strives to be stoic and offbeat, but is too stubborn in attitude and too lacking in charisma to defend its stance, which causes a novel concept for a technology-free life to turn pedantic. We can get all the pedantry we need from our own Facebook feeds.