There’s a moment early on in “Captain Fantastic” when Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), while driving his six kids around in a lovingly refurbished old school bus, catches one of his teenage daughters reading “Lolita.” For Ben, a fount of erudition and progressive thinking, this discovery is not cause for alarm, but rather a chance to nourish his child’s intellect. What does she think of “Lolita”? “It’s interesting,” she says. “‘Interesting’ is a nonword,” Ben retorts, pressing her further. “Give us your analysis.”
Wise words for both the aspiring literary scholar and the jaded film critic to live by, and I’ll do my best to heed them with regard to “Captain Fantastic,” a well-acted, suspiciously slick comedy-drama written and directed by the actor Matt Ross, whom you may have seen on TV series such as “Silicon Valley” and “American Horror Story.” Like Ross’ 2012 feature filmmaking debut, the intimate two-hander “28 Hotel Rooms,” “Captain Fantastic” first screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where it largely won audiences over with its disarming blend of quotable cleverness and meticulous emotional calculation — if disarming is the word for a movie about a guy who gives his kids military-grade hunting knives as presents.
For several years, Ben and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have raised their offspring somewhere in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, in scornful retreat from the material corruption of the modern world. The severity of their existence goes well beyond foraging for food and dressing like hippies. Ross, sharing with the cinematographer Stephane Fontaine a fine eye for verdant scenery, choreographs the Cashes’ curious routine with a mix of great-outdoors roughness and bright-hued, hand-crafted whimsy, as if Wes Anderson were directing a boot-camp recruitment video.
They begin their days with an exhausting physical regimen that can range from running and stretching to high-altitude rock climbing in a torrential downpour. They end their nights around a campfire, playing music with makeshift instruments, and reading Dostoevsky, Eliot, Jared Diamond and other works that Ben has approved for the cultivation of sharp, nonconformist minds. They spout Marxist ideology, speak any number of languages, and reject Christmas in favor of “Noam Chomsky Day.” Ben’s eldest son, Bo (George MacKay), is enough of a scholar to have earned admission to several Ivy League schools — a fact he keeps hidden from his father, who would be appalled by the idea of his son caving in any way to the establishment.
Bo’s desire for independence and normalcy is echoed even more strongly by his 12-year-old brother, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), who alone seems to resent their father for his stubborn pride (and possibly for naming him Rellian). This youthful rebellion is not the first warning that the Cashes’ aggressively rustic way of life may be untenable. Nor is it the only sign that “Captain Fantastic,” for all the affection and admiration it lavishes on this unconventional family — rounded out by teenage twins Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso), and the youngest ones, Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) — might be an altogether more conventional movie than it fancies itself.
Like any number of fairy tales and family melodramas, the story is set in motion by a parent’s untimely death. Leslie, we learn at the outset, abruptly left the family a few months earlier, and recently committed suicide after a long struggle with mental illness. Not one to infantilize his children by shielding them from difficult truths, Ben calmly explains what has happened, occasioning a strained, unpersuasive display of collective grief — one that the film quickly shoves aside in favor of bold, defiant action, as the Cashes decide to steer their bus toward the big city, crash Mom’s church funeral and honor her wish to be cremated in a Buddhist ceremony.
There are plenty of comic misadventures en route, including some creatively inspired shoplifting, the shrewd bamboozling of a traffic cop, and several irritatingly smug, lazy jabs at Christianity. There are also abundant opportunities for heated truth-telling and morose self-realization, as when Bo, experiencing his awkward first fumblings with the opposite sex, grasps how socially ill-equipped his upbringing has left him.
At its best, “Captain Von Trapp” — sorry, “Captain Fantastic” — is deft enough to keep you guessing about whether it endorses Ben’s unyielding worldview. It goes without saying that Dad should stop taking parenting tips from Ted Kaczynski and let his kids have access to decent healthcare. But our views of the matter are mildly complicated, not only by the fact that the world probably would be a better place if more kids could expound at length on the Constitution, but also by the sly, grounded intelligence of Mortensen’s performance.
In retrospect, the actor’s work in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Road” were good preparation for the role of a father leading a mini-fellowship through physically inhospitable environs. His display of mountain-man sternness and grizzled sensitivity is compelling enough to briefly complicate your feelings toward a man who — whether he’s crashing his wife’s funeral in a hideous red suit or stepping out fully nude in public — is an objectively intolerable human being.
Ben’s raging narcissism is such that the kids, with the exceptions of the two older boys, rarely register as more than vessels of charming precocity. Some welcome pushback is offered by Ben’s sister and brother-in-law (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn), even if their more traditional child-rearing methods have produced two dull specimens of Xbox-addicted mediocrity. There is also Leslie’s father (Frank Langella), whose overbearing disapproval and vast suburban manse give you some understanding of why his daughter might have wanted to leave. Best of all, there is Leslie’s mother (a moving Ann Dowd), whose impulses toward acceptance and sympathy make her, almost by default, the wisest and most reasonable voice in the picture.
But the one you really long to see and hear more of, sadly, is Leslie herself. As much as it recalls the family road-trip shenanigans of “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Captain Fantastic” may also remind you of “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s drama about a man trying to make peace with his wife as she lies dying. If that woman’s unfortunate voicelessness served its dramatic purpose, the careful removal of Leslie from this picture feels like more of an evasion — an easily exploitable hook in a movie that, as its treatment of Ben’s daughters suggests, doesn’t like its female characters too vocal or headstrong.
By the end, the film’s initially beguiling charm has curdled into a dispiritingly familiar mix of sentimentality and self-satisfaction — buoyed along by a crooning, twinkling score that makes the final product feel as subversive as an Enya album. I don’t mean to make “Captain Fantastic” sound terrible; it doesn’t risk enough to earn that designation. But in largely succumbing to the very complacency its characters claim to abhor, it turns out to be — I hate to say it — a far less interesting movie than it appears.
MPAA rating: R, for language and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, Los Angeles