Say what you will about the hyper-commercialization of film, Marxist cinema is still alive — at least in a limited way, living as it would in an American capitalist society: on the fringes. In “Captain Fantastic,” a family that ascribes to these same values also finds itself removed, by choice, from the grasps of mainstream society, settled in rural Washington.
At the head of the Cash family is Ben (Viggo Mortensen, “A History of Violence”), a man who, with his wife, has propped up a remote settlement to teach their children about life in a way a standardized education could not. They exercise daily, hunt for their own food and read constantly. The Cash family has established an intellectual utopia to create “philosopher kings” of their children — in which the word “interesting” is banned — anyone who expresses an opinion is invited to explain it to open ears and celebrations of Christmas are left by the wayside in favor of Noam Chomsky Day, to honor the beloved linguist.
When Ben’s wife dies, the dynamics of the family change considerably, forced to enter and confront American society to attend her funeral. This proves quite the challenge for the Cashes, who pride themselves on their intellectual and physical strength. As Bodevan (George MacKay, “Pride”), the oldest child, cries in frustration to his father, “Unless it comes out of a book, I don’t know anything!” Bodevan, or Bodie for short, may be able to parse between “Trotskyite” and “Trotskyist” while declaring himself as a Maoist, but he is far from competent at talking to girls. The five other children, whose names—Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai—are meant to signify their unending uniqueness in the world, also struggle to adapt to their surroundings. Only Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton, “Strangerland”), a rebellious tween, expresses anger at his father for bringing the family out to the western wilderness.
“Captain Fantastic” is, above all, a master class in emotions, a study of how actors can remain human even when their characters are far from relatable. Individuals who live in the forest and are taught to hate organized religion, schools, medicine — really anything at all — are few and far between, yet the six children are so believable at their core, so dedicated to their father’s teachings that it’s impossible not to sympathize with them when their grandfather threatens to take custody. Ben is a complex and rather compelling character by default, but Mortensen brings a dedication and heightened intellect to the role that flashes when he speaks his rather non-flashy dialogue. Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) plays Ben’s father-in-law with gravitas, bringing a quiet yet looming and brooding presence to the film’s chief antagonist. Kathryn Hahn (“The Visit”) and Steve Zahn (“Dallas Buyers Club”) blend in perfectly as supposedly “good” and “responsible” parents who have subscribed to the American consumerist parenting guide en masse that the Cash family so despises.
Though, the film can stumble when it succumbs to, instead of subverting, easy choices. Bodie’s cultural blank spots are taken to their logical extreme — literally being unable to speak to a girl when he sees her or, later, proposing to wed a girl after meeting her that day. He may have only read books, but surely they had protagonists wait before proposing marriage. The symbolism is also a bit too pronounced. The family only listens to classical music and the film dispels with a typical film score for something more rustic, so, of course, “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic” blares through the speakers in a grocery store. The family drives around in a converted school bus, painted green and retrofitted like an RV, a clear allusion to the family’s unorthodox translations of what happens in a typical American household and life.
Yet, ultimately, the film is a success because it’s unafraid to explore and often defend the family’s experimental living. Writer and Director Matt Ross (“28 Hotel Rooms”) clearly did his research, diving into the worlds of Noam Chomsky and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose theory of over-identification as a strategy to upend societal norms clearly informed the family’s method of scaring cops away from arresting Ben. The line is repeated continuously throughout, but it’s ultimately true: “We’re defined by our actions, not our words.” We may criticize our society to no end, but Ross has actually shown us what we could be.