Everything about Captain Fantastic is fantastic. Thematically massive, tonally bold, determinedly non-formulaic and featuring a preternaturally perfectly cast leading man at the top of his game, Matt Ross’ second feature film as writer/director is one of the best of the year thus far, up there with Sing Street.
Viggo Mortensen – and, once you’ve seen the film, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role – plays Ben, the father of six kids living off the grid in the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He’s brining them up with a philosophy combining intense survival skills, intense physical training, intense learning (his eldest speaks six languages) and intense moral introspection. Ben is intense, and so are his incredible spawn.
Unfortunately, their mother, Leslie, is hospitalised, stricken with terrible manic depression, and her death near the beginning of the film causes the clan to mount their trusty hippie bus “Steve” and head all the way down the coast towards her funeral. Real Life will inevitably get in their idyllic way.
The kids are all – well, fantastic. George MacKay, as that eldest with the six languages, is one of those “I can’t believe he’s English!” English actors – I recognised him from an excellent little Brit Mini-Series called The Outcast (2015) after getting past the likelihood that, despite appearances, he probably wasn’t Mortensen’s actual son – he’s that well cast. And Annalise Basso and Samantha Isler are tremendously believable as spookily precocious sisters. The scene in which one of them (I’m not sure which!) gives her own take on Lolita is worth the ticket on its own.
Road trip movies are inherently episodic, but Ross’ astonishingly rich script allows each stop along the way to contribute to the film’s larger thematic texture with deeply satisfying construction. Indeed, the rhythms of the film are so singular that you are almost upbraided (well, I was upbraiding myself) for trying to predict them. The road in this road movie is not the length you expect, and doesn’t lead you where you may possibly think it will. Don’t try to out-guess this film; you can’t. It’s pretty plain that Ben’s extreme parenting methods are going to come into question, but exactly how they are questioned – and answered – is the stuff of near-genius screenwriting.
The supporting cast are perfect. Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, Missi Pyle, Erin Moriarty – I mean, come on. They’re all superb, and even when they’ve only got a scene, they contribute a multi-dimensional character. It’s really rather remarkable.
Movies this good really don’t come along that often. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss this one on the big screen. I didn’t even mention how gorgeously it’s shot – but it’s gorgeously shot. It’s funny, it’s deeply moving, it’s tender, it’s tough. The music’s awesome. There’s just endless things about it to love. Go love it up.