Contemporary America puts a family’s anti-capitalist, back-to-nature lifestyle to the test in Captain Fantastic, says MacDara Conroy

The first major feature by writer-director (and TV actor) Matt Ross, and vaguely based on his own upbringing, Captain Fantastic comes across by and large like a Wes Anderson comedy of manners without the suffocating stylistic affectations. In fact, the dysfunctional unit at the heart this story probably bears closer resemblance that weirdo postmodern Brady Bunch Movie from the mid ’90s, whereby a family that does things their own way are thrust by changing circumstances into a world that’s simply not ready for them.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) heads the precocious clan he and his wife Leslie have been raising off the grid in the untamed forests of Washington, before mom’s sudden illness, and interference by the in-laws, prompts dad and kids to hit the road in their Partridge Family bus. It’s a shock to the system in every figurative sense, as contemporary America puts the family’s anti-capitalist, back-to-nature, Walden-esque lifestyle to the test. The road trip rolls on, tensions build and nerves fray, and the formerly cloistered children, with their ‘unique’ names and hipster quirks, begin to discover themselves, while their father is pushed to second-guess whether he’s been doing right by them all along.

George MacKay in Captain Fantastic

George MacKay in Captain Fantastic

The thing is that Captain Fantastic takes far too long to get to that revelatory point. The lie of their Swiss Family Robinson idyll is dispelled quite early on, when life on the road requires mean-spirited scams to get by. A fat-shaming scene at a small-town bank in flyover country also passes by undeveloped and unchallenged. It leaves a sour taste that more whimsical moments like a family celebration of ‘Noam Chomsky Day’ can’t quite mask, especially when even those tend to endorse a kind of faux-survivalist, libertarian streak that ripples through events. It’s too late in the day when Ben is finally taken to task for his self-satisfied approach to the world at large, though when that does happen, the floodgates open and it’s moments of clarity all round.

What’s worse, though, is that the film also takes far too long to reveal itself as the sensitive depiction of the collateral damage of mental illness it ultimately becomes, rather than the unenlightened (to use the most diplomatic term) take to which we’re treated throughout the bulk of its two hours of National Lampoon’s Vacation as drama. Strong performances by the kids, a magnetic, nuanced turn by Mortensen, and smart cameos particularly Frank Langella as the father-in-law from hell, make it eminently watchable – as does the gorgeous scenery, from the lush greens of the Pacific Northwest to the dusty mesas of New Mexico. But until its final scenes, it goes a little too easy on all that sanctimony for comfort.

Captain Fantastic opens nationwide on Friday September 9th