Captain Fantastic may sound like a lame superhero flick named by a bored and tired director, but it’s actually the sort of offbeat but feelgood indie film that could become a sleeper hit. When this surprising two-hour drama was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation from the famously tricky crowd.
Writer-director Matt Ross (also an actor, who plays Gavin Belson in HBO’s Silicon Valley) introduces us to Ben Cash and his family as they enter a crisis. For several years Ben (Lord Of The Rings star Viggo Mortensen) has been raising his six children almost completely off the grid on a self-made campsite in an isolated patch of Pacific Northwest forest. Home-schooled and trained by Ben to fend for themselves, these kids are smart, strong and skilled. In the first scene, eldest son Bodevan (talented young Brit George MacKay) kills a wild deer before his sisters gut and bone the animal for dinner. But when Ben learns that his wife has committed suicide, the Cash clan are forced to reconnect with mainstream society so they can attend her funeral.
At this point, Captain Fantastic becomes a unique fusion of road movie, culture-clash comedy and redemption story. The socially inexperienced Bodevan enjoys his first kiss with a worldly teenage girl he meets at a trailer park; the family robs a supermarket in a standout scene soundtracked by Bikini Kill’s ‘Rebel Girl’; and Ben clashes catastrophically with his disapproving father-in-law (Frost/Nixon’s Frank Langella). Although Mortensen’s character is supposed to be the hero, Ross makes him intriguingly complex: Ben is smart and clearly devoted to his family, but just too proud and prickly to be completely likeable.
However, the film sometimes lets itself down. Mining comedy from a cute young kid who says inappropriately grown-up things isn’t clever – it’s a trope borrowed from rubbish ’90s sitcoms. The relatively tidy ending also feels slightly lazy after a series of more challenging plot twists. But these flaws don’t prevent Captain Fantastic from offering an affecting and provocative ride that (nearly) justifies that standing ovation.