Ben's five children are savages. That's the way he wants them. Brutal and cunning enough to stalk, kill and dress a deer. Able to climb sheer rock walls, know the deadliest spots to stab an opponent, stitch themselves if needed. Ben wants them ready for whatever is out there.
That's why Ben's children are also incredibly smart, homeschooled off the grid in their Pacfic Northwest wilderness home. Campfires are for reading classics and drum circle recess. The youngest, Zaja, knows the Bill of Rights beyond mere recitation; oldest Bodevan has Ivy League acceptance Ben knows nothing about.
Ben's boot camp paradise may be lost in Matt Ross' gently eccentric Captain Fantastic, a movie always wisely aware of the parenting contradictions it poses. Anchored by Viggo Mortensen's prismatic portrayal of Ben, this is one of the summer's nicest movie surprises, and among its wisest.
In lesser hands, Ben would come across as a child abusing survivalist for drama, or a hippie-dippie earth dad for amusement. Mortensen conveys that entire range, charismatic yet perfectly modulated to leave doubt. Ross writes Ben — actually, each character — on a narrow edge of empathy. No one in Captain Fantastic is easy to disagree with.
Not even Ben's wealthy father-in-law (Frank Langella), who never liked Ben, or that he spirited away his daughter and grandkids. Now, circumstances allow a way to get even, for his ego's sake as much as the good of the children. This situation won't materialize until Ben and his brood become a ruggedly enchanting example of family values.
Ross, who co-stars in HBO's Silicon Valley, creates a delicate balance of parental responsibility and romantic nonconformity. The movie's first half is set entirely in Ben's homestead, establishing them as an extreme Swiss Family Robinson, warmly disturbing, off-set by Mortensen's profane Jesus vibe and six remarkable young actors.
Leading the pack is George MacKay as Bodevan, whose bloody rite of passage into manhood opens the film. When the family moves outside a primitive comfort zone, Bodevan awkwardly tests another future. MacKay smoothly advances the character from moldable to determined, a pleasure to watch.
Ben preaches individuality, so each of his progeny is well-defined on the page and in the performances. The youngest two, Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), are constant scene stealers, handling intellectually mature dialogue with aplomb. Nicholas Hamilton's rebellious Rellian adds smart friction to this unorthodox family dynamic. Their overnight stay with relatives (Steve Zahn, Kathryn Hahn) is a culture clash comedy highlight.
Where is their mother, you may be asking? That's something Ross slowly reveals, sending Ben and the kids on a road trip in their bus named Steve. Captain Fantastic becomes a bit more conventional with each passing mile. Fresh personalities keep Ross' episodic road trip structure interesting, until a drawn-out ending mushier than necessary. (And illogical, given Langella's character.)
By that time, Captain Fantastic may be lodged too deep in your heart to matter. Something like Ben, it's a movie with bare feet in two worlds; a daring, uncommercial indie with the soul of a studio feel-good flick.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.