Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his family spend their days out in the woods of the Pacific north-west, having abandoned everyday American ideals in favour of an off-the-grid, non-consumerist existence deep in the wilderness. Living an almost dream-like existence, they skilfully hunt for their own food and exercise rigorously using the forest around them
But when his wife, Leslie, commits suicide after years of battling bipolar disorder and a final, tragically unsuccessful stint in hospital, Ben must expose his six, sheltered children to the dreaded "ordinary" world they left behind in order to attend the funeral and put a stop to the parts he knows Leslie would have hated about the ceremony.
A bit like Little Miss Sunshine, when Captain Fantastic – directed by Matt Ross – really gets under way, it quickly becomes a road-trip movie for the most part, as we follow the Cash family on their eventful travels from Washington State to New Mexico in order to attend their mother's funeral. But in true, indie movie fashion, this is no case of just getting from A to B and the whole family including Ben learn various things along the way.
For eldest child, Bo, the journey offers an opportunity to finally tell his father that he's been accepted into almost every Ivy League college in the country and is toying with the idea of taking up their offers. While simultaneously, a lay-over at a trailer park sees him experience his first kiss... and subsequently, his first marriage proposal too through lack of "normal" dating decorum. But despite Captain Fantastic undoubtedly having its funny moments, not once do you laugh at the fish-out-of-water. Such scenes are treated the way Ross deals with every scene, with underlying but impossible to ignore threads of sympathy and respect.
Just as the Cash children often [justifiably] boast about their intelligence, the film does come across as a little pretentious with its over-the-top quirks at times. Maybe a child would opt to wear a gas mask while she's reading George Eliot's Middlemarch around a campfire but we can't help but think it was added in just to emphasise how "zany" these kids are. But Ross never lets the film descend into a complete declaration of its own quirkiness, nor does it ever feel false, due to the director's constant parallels between Ben's kookiness and his unrelentingly pragmatism. The Cashes don't celebrate Christmas, but they do celebrate Noam Chomsky day. At first it seems "out there", but when Ben explains how similar the family's morals and ideals are to Chomsky's – it makes perfect sense.
While the whole cast are truly wonderful, as expected, Mortensen's Ben acts as both the family and film's focal point, switching between hero and villain throughout. There are qualities to deeply admire about Ben; first and foremost that he's a man devoted to giving his children what he truly believes is their best shot at a happy life. However, part of his passion for their upbringing has also made him blind to certain flaws in his plan and caused him to ignore whether his children actually want to go through life this way or whether they might want more.
There are times your heart wrenches for him, such as when he struggles to come to terms with his wife's death and the idea that he might have to say goodbye to his children, too. But, brilliantly, there are also times in which you wholeheartedly believe Bo, Vespyr, Zaja and the rest of his offspring would be better off without his teachings which sometimes border on overbearing. Occasionally, you even question his decisions – is encouraging your children to steal "healthy" food from a local supermarket really better than eating a hot dog in the diner across the street? Power to the people, stick it to the man, indeed.
Ben isn't the only character you jump between somewhat disliking to sympathising with either, as Ross' treatment of almost every role is treated in a similar three-dimensional and wonderfully realistic way. When Ben is first told by Leslie's father, Jack (Frank Langella), that if he attempts to come to his wife's funeral, Jack will have him arrested, you can't comprehend how a grown man can deprive another of such a moment, regardless of family disagreements. But as we learn more, we come to understand Jack's worries – all be them a little extreme – and realise that he too is dealing with his own grief.
In a year of reboots, remakes and sequels, Captain Fantastic is (quite aptly) like a breath of fresh air – not only presenting something completely original but also, unburdened by one particular genre label. Wonderfully simple and full of heart, it realises that people and how we treat or relate to one another are the subjects we're most interested in and considering how many rich characters it presents, it's hard not to enjoy this moving celebration of being unique.