“If there’s any sort of message about parenting or living, it’s about seeking balance,” said Matt Ross, the Berkeley-based director and screenwriter of “Captain Fantastic.”
The message sounds reasoned, if well-worn. The route that “Captain Fantastic” takes to get to that message, from deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest into a massive mansion in the suburbs of New Mexico, is not. At least until the film’s denouement.
Ross is best known for his work in TV (“Silicon Valley,” “American Horror Story”). “Captain Fantastic,” his second feature film (after his indie effort “28 Hotel Rooms”), still has the unorthodox sensibility of an indie, but with the production value of a much bigger-budget film.
The movie opens with chlorophyll and blood. Viggo Mortensen’s character, Ben Cash, tells his oldest son, who has just killed his first deer, that he has become a man. Soon after, Ben presents one of his sons, Rellian (yes, his name is Rellian), a knife as a gift for Noam Chomsky Day, one of the few holidays that they celebrate. Rellian furiously asks why they can’t just celebrate Christmas like normal people.
Ben and his late wife chose to raise their six children outside of society to make them self-sufficient animals of the Earth, free from the corrupting injunctions of American capitalism. (The family surname is surely a giggle on Ross’ part.) He schooled them to climb and hunt and forage and, of course, read enough leftist political thought to quote Marx on command.
We learn that Ben’s wife, Leslie, has left the woods for a hospital to treat her depression; the Thoreau lifestyle hasn’t improved her bipolar disorder. The family receives word that she has committed suicide. Ben and the children decide that they must go, in spite of his father-in-law’s contempt. They venture into society.
The first chunk of “Captain Fantastic” suggests that it is a case study of someone trying to live their life by the lessons of an acid trip. But Ross, who spent a good deal of his childhood living in rural Oregon communities founded by his mother, says that this heady stuff wasn’t his focus. “For me, it’s much more about parenting than it is about communal living situations or living off the grid or bipolar disorder,” Ross said. “I think that I didn’t write it necessarily with the idea in mind that I was going to write something attacking modern culture.”
Ross speaks of Ben with admiration in his voice, describing him as an extremely conscientious parent who has his fair share of foibles. His mostly positive evaluation of Ben is fair in many ways — after all, bringing a child into the world is a matter of great consequence. Given that a child can’t consent to it, a parent certainly must bring them up with the utmost care. Ben does.
Still, at times, the hands-on parenting Ben espouses reads as narcissism. Once Ben and his children finally get to the church where the funeral service is being held, Ben, clothed in a garish red suit, throws open the church doors and stomps in midway through the service. His youngest daughter has an animal skin perched atop her head; the whole family is perched atop its high horse. Their behavior, and Ben’s subsequent speech, jeers the mourning people in the room.
Their gripes with organized religion and Leslie’s parents aside, it is disturbing that neither Ben nor the children who he has reared see their actions as excessively condescending and dismissive of all of the very real human beings in the room, slaves to the machine (as Ben would put it) or not.
“Captain Fantastic” gets mired in melodrama after that scene’s heavy-footed misstep. A few inspired scenes roll by towards the end, including a folksy family band rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a cliff. But one can’t help but feel that the last act tips the scale too far into happy ending fodder, neutering what might have been a daring and original work.