Raising families in forests works best in theory

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Captain Fantastic
Roxy Theatre
Opens Friday 26
4 out of 5

You have to hand it to Viggo Mortensen. He could’ve parlayed his work as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings into a lucrative Hollywood career, but instead the actor snubbed high-profile roles for David Cronenberg movies and a bunch of films in Spanish.

Even when the movies falter, Mortensen is always fascinating to watch. He’s the rare actor who’s more effective with silence than words.

Captain Fantastic is a perfect match for his skills. A realistic take on people who shun society, this dramedy may seem to be on the side of misanthropes but it doesn’t shy away from exposing the damage isolation may do to children.

Early into their marriage, Ben (Mortensen) and his wife decided their family would be better off moving into the Pacific Northwest woodlands. Their goal was to keep the kids from modern malaises and provide them with meaningful (and left-leaning) education.

Eighteen years later, the experiment has mixed results. Their six kids are happy, healthy and intellectually voracious. They’re also practically luddites. Also, one of the youngest has grown resentful and the oldest has been accepted by every Ivy League university and is considering abandoning the family lifestyle. The mother, meanwhile, has been in and out of hospitals with depression, and is practically out of the picture.

When news arrives that she’s died, the Noam Chomsky-loving bunch takes a road trip to attend the funeral. One caveat: Ben’s father in law doesn’t like Ben and has threatened to have him arrested on sight. The impromptu journey forces the clan to use their rudimentary social skills and they soon realize there’s stuff they can’t learn from books.

For a first directorial effort, Matt Ross (Gavin Belsom in Silicon Valley) does a solid job world-building. His Captain Fantastic is an equal opportunity offender: a good number of digs are directed at those who have pursued a “normal” lifestyle and are oblivious to their limitations. That said, the film is never patronizing. It’s mostly off-kilter, touching and funny at the same time. Not a small feat to pull off.