In the woods of the Pacific Northwest, Ben (Viggo Mortenson) is the father of five children raised solely on the land, home schooled in quantum physics and the works of Noam Chomsky. His loving but tough, natural existence is disrupted by the death of his wife and mother of the brood, Leslie (Trin Miller). Now he is banned by Leslie's estranged father, Jack (Frank Langella), from attending to her funeral. Ben's anarchist streak refuses to take this lying down, kicking-off a defiant cross country trip that will expose his sheltered but brilliant children to the outside world for the first time.
What could have easily been an annoying 118 minutes spent with a cadre of hippies actually turns out to be one of the sweetest movies I have seen all year. Mortensen anchors this movie with another brilliant performance; gruff and independent, he manages to convey genuine love and affection towards the family. He also adds nuance to the character. Ben is somewhat flawed –he's stubborn, inflexible and myopic in his beliefs, sometimes to the detriment of his family's safety.
The way he delivers the news of his wife's death is brutal by our standards, but well within his straight-talking purview. The kids do a great job portraying a unit that has only ever had each other for company and books for entertainment, speech between the family sounds like something out of Greek forum, with each family member stating their case like a thesis.
Their free thinking libertarian and high falutin' values are most clearly counterpointed when they interact with their cousins at a dinner party. Here we see how different they are to "normal" kids who would rather play Xbox than hunt deer or read the Marxist theory. Ben's sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) play excellent straight-laced foils to the out-there insanity of Ben and his brood, while also highlighting obvious and legitimate concerns of the effect that such a sheltered life can have on children. Your kids may be smart, but what do they actually know about the real world?
The film casts a judging eye at the modern world. Ben's kids are a superhuman ideal while the rest of us plebs in the normal world are slovenly and dull. If only we'd been eating berries in woods and reading about quantum physics, it flies close to being somewhat moralistic in its approach. However, there is so much heart in this movie that it stops it becoming a moralist fish-out-of-water story, oldest son Bo's (George MacKay) first kiss and results in a cringe-worthy scene that is very funny, so is the ingenious way the family deals with being pulled over by the police. Langella also does an amazing job, initially taking the role of the "villain" but then having some fairly valid points that the audience has to acknowledge. A nuanced performance that I just didn't expect from that character.
All of this would not work if not for the excellent supporting cast – the kids are fantastic. The younger cast members Shree Cooks and Charlie Shotwell are unbelievably cute and there is an anarchic glee in the happiness they derive from receiving bladed weapons for "Noam Chomsky" day. You really believe that this is a family that genuinely loves each other, which is a rare thing for a movie to do.
Captain Fantastic takes what could be an excruciating time spent with an annoying bean-eating hippie family and through great direction and brilliant casting turns it into one of the sweetest comedy-dramas you will see all year.