In a way, Captain Fantastic is something of a throwback, a movie that hinges on a slightly dated conflict between a father's fierce countercultural commitments and widely recognized mainstream proprieties.
Forget the title, Captain Fantastic has nothing to do with comic book heroism; it's the story of an intelligent survivalist (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children. Mortensen's Ben believes that, as a parent, he's obligated to remove his children from the corrupting influences of a society driven mad by soul-destroying capitalism.
Ben is so committed to his views that he has substituted the celebration of Noam Chomsky's birthday for Christmas. Yes, it's OK to laugh, but Ben believes in the moral necessity of his choices.
The always intelligent Mortensen, adept at suggesting more than scripts often contain, imbues Ben with edgy smarts and stern conviction. He can be loving and a bit scary.
The movie opens with a bloody coming-of-age ritual involving a hunt, but it quickly becomes clear that Ben isn't neglecting the intellectual side of his kids' growth: They're home-schooled in literature, science and philosophy, and are encouraged to defend any position they take.
Ben also subjects his brood to physical challenges that he calls "training." These exercises can include dangerous rock climbing expeditions and exhausting uphill runs.
It shouldn't be surprising that Ben's kids have unconventional names: Bodevan (George MacKay) is the oldest, a teen-ager who's beginning to wonder if he's missing something. Encouraged by his mother, Bodevan secretly has applied to some of the nation's most elite colleges.
As for the rest of the brood, I could tell you the kids who play the family, but instead I'll give you a few of the character names: Nai, Zaja, Vestry, Kielyr and Relian, a countercultural roll call if ever there were one.
Simply hanging around the forest with a bunch of kids might not be particularly interesting. Something major must happen, and it does. Mom, who's off being treated for severe depression, commits suicide.
Mom's parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) blame Ben for ruining their daughter's life. They ban him from the funeral, the Christian burial Langella's Jack insists on. Mom, we learn, wanted to be cremated.
Urged on by his kids, Ben loads everyone into the rundown bus the family uses for transportation and attends the funeral.
En route, the family stops at the home of an aunt and uncle (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn) who are understandably concerned about the way in which Ben raises his children.
Credit writer/director Matt Ross with setting up some amusing situations, most notably one in which Bodevan meets a girl at a campsite and decides that his first kiss provides sufficient reason to propose marriage.
The point, of course, is that these kids have little idea about how to operate in socially oriented situations.
Not all of Ben's judgments seem particularly smart. During a celebration of Noam Chomsky Day, Ben gives his six-year-old daughter a copy of The Joy of Sex. Why burden the kid with unnecessary inhibitions?
While traveling, Dad and the kids stage an operation in which they steal food from a supermarket. Ben has taught them that they're entitled to free food from a system that's designed to exploit them.
Not surprisingly, the family runs into a conflict with Langella's Jack, who wants to take custody of the kids. Jack believes that some of Ben's child-rearing methods are abusive. If you think about it, he has a point, but the movie doesn't take that point seriously enough.
Captain Fantastic remains watchable because of Mortensen, who convinced me that Ben was an ideologue, a tyrant with his kids (for their own good, of course) but also a loving father who eventually must decide whether he has the right to make some of the choices he's forced on his children.
To the extent that the movie leaves you to ponder what's really best for Ben's kids, it's a worthwhile and somewhat offbeat addition of this year's movie run.
But it's also true that the most interesting character in the movie only appears on screen in Ben's daydreams. Mom evidently developed strong reservations about the family's search for self-sufficiency. Perhaps because of his stubborn commitment to what he viewed as his high ideals, Dad couldn't hear her.
To me, the most convincing thing about Captain Fantastic was Mom's depression, which may not be what Ross most wanted anyone to take away from his movie.
A BETTER MOVIE ABOUT A KID IN THE WOODS