In the indie drama Captain Fantastic, countercultural guru Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) orders his six kids never to use the word "interesting." It's weak and undescriptive, he points out — rightly. But perhaps "interesting" is the best word for this film that waffles between giving the audience a feel-good experience and doing justice to its own deeper, more provocative themes.
Ben is the kind of rugged idealist every Vermonter will recognize. The film opens deep in the forests of Washington State, where he and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have raised their brood in isolation from modern society. The kids kill their own food, scale mountains without a blink and revere the writings of Noam Chomsky, as Dad has taught them.
But there's trouble in this new Eden: Mom is missing. Leslie has been in an institution receiving treatment for severe depression, and, just a few scenes in, Ben learns that she has committed suicide. In a raw and wrenching scene, he breaks the news to the kids. They want to attend their mother's funeral — which means braving the wilds of "normal" America.
It's a strange and daring pretext for a road-trip movie. Did Leslie suffer solely from a dearth of serotonin (as Ben insists), or did the family's demanding lifestyle exacerbate her problems (as the lone rebellious kid [Nicholas Hamilton] insinuates)? Why did Ben and Leslie choose this life in the first place, and what did it mean to each of them? We never find out. First-time writer-director Matt Ross raises cogent questions about the price of iconoclasm, only to let them wither away so the movie can focus on, well, cuteness.
With six kids ranging from tykes to teens, all schooled in leftist academic rhetoric and not shy about repeating it, there's a lot of potential for cloying laughs here, and Ross too often steers the film in that direction. While some of the young actors bring skill and nuance to their roles (especially George MacKay as the eldest son), they're too often used as punch lines in a broad culture-clash comedy. Pronouncements such as "This house is a vulgar display of wealth" might indeed come easily to youngsters schooled in Chomsky, but not nearly as regularly as they do here.
As an ensemble, the children too rarely seem relaxed or believable as siblings — perhaps because they're being used as devices to highlight both their own absurdity and that of mainstream culture. Mortensen, by contrast, plays Ben as textured, thoughtful and occasionally self-doubting, rather than as a cardboard patriarch.
Mocking the mainstream is a bold choice on Ross' part, yet he never reconciles the film's dominant tone of celebration and uplift — "Isn't this wacky family awesome?" — with its grimmer moments. Leslie's dad (Frank Langella) represents everything Ben hates, but he makes a few good points about what kids need. So does a doctor who reminds Ben that, by pushing his progeny to their physical limits, he sometimes endangers their lives.
Quirk runs rampant in Captain Fantastic, but the film needs more of the resonant emotional notes that, say, the best Wes Anderson movies achieve. People raised apart from society do tend to be different in fascinating ways, but their oddness is shaggy and anarchic; it can't be slotted easily into appealing categories such as "adorable kid talking like a professor."
In some ways, the film stays true to Ben's dissenting vision — for instance, the family remains proudly, unapologetically atheist. In other ways, Captain Fantastic mainstreams that vision into something that could, without too many changes, become a rollicking network sitcom. Toss in a few neighbors with whom the teens can flirt awkwardly, give the littlest kids anticorporate catchphrases, and you'd have "The Survivalists Next Door." Which would certainly be "interesting."