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‘Captain Fantastic’: Fantastic viewing for all the family

by Giovanni Fazio

Matt Ross is probably best known for his role in the HBO comedy series “Silicon Valley,” where he plays the arrogant CEO Gavin Belson of Google-like IT giant Hooli. Belson is a man wired deep into the matrix, for whom nothing matters more than massive functionality in lossless cloud-based compression, and keeping the shareholders happy.

Ross takes a 180-degree turn as the director and writer of “Captain Fantastic,” a delightful, sharply written comedy about a man who has taken his family deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest to live completely off the grid. The film won top prize in the Un Certain Regard category at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and its combination of quirky humor with some deeper thoughts about the nature of parenting allows viewers to enjoy this on whatever level they please.

Ben Cash (played by Viggo Mortensen) is raising six kids (George MacKay and Samantha Isler play the elders) in a cabin with no internet, telephone, television or just about any contact with society at large. In America, this sort of person is often a gun-loving survivalist type, but in Ben’s case, he’s Tarzan with a college degree, a back-to-the-land paleo-hippie. He teaches his kids how to be self-sufficient through bow-and-arrow hunting, scavenging, gardening and other practical skills. Entertainment is a campfire hootenanny. Plenty of books too, and his kids are all autodidacts who know the difference between a Trotskyite and a Maoist.

When Ben’s hospitalized wife Leslie dies, he piles his rag-tag family into a battered old school bus to take them to the funeral, which is being organized by Leslie’s terribly materialist and disapproving dad (Frank Langella); much crusty vs. yuppie misunderstanding follows.

Basically stepping from the 19th century into the 21st, the kids react with bewilderment to what surrounds them, a society smothered in brands and digital distractions. In a shopping mall food court, they panic, asking, “What’s wrong with everyone?” “Are they sick?” “Everyone’s so fat!” Ben reminds them, “We don’t make fun of people,” to which his youngest daughter adds, “except Christians.”

The caricature of self-righteous leftism on display here is spot on, and “Captain Fantastic” walks a fine line between seeing the good faith in Ben’s Thoreau-like beliefs and acknowledging the rather authoritarian way in which he pushes them on his kids. On one level, Ben looks like a nutter, putting his kids through cruelly Spartan training and filling their minds with leftist dogma (the family celebrates Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas). But in a time where much of civilization could be underwater by the time our children become adults, there’s the creeping feeling that Ben may actually be the only realist.

Recalling my own childhood, I never saw my two best friends on weekends because their dad would take them up to backwoods Vermont, where they were forced labor on his project of building a house from scratch. Living in a comfortable suburb, he seemed like a nutter too, that is until I learned that he grew up in Germany when it was overrun by the Soviets at the end of World War II. Unlike the rest of us, he knew how bad things could get.

If you grew up in the counterculture rebelling against authority only to find yourself a decade later in the role of responsible parent — imposing rules on screen time, junk food and curfews — you will certainly dig where Ross is coming from. I saw a lot of truth in the character Ross creates here, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that part of his own childhood was spent on a commune. Rare is the person who can grow up with a sense of humor about their past traumas, and “Captain Fantastic” is just that: fantastic.