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Movie review: ‘Captain Fantastic’ is funny and sweet – and fantastic

George MacKay, from left, Viggo Mortensen, Annalise Basso and Samantha Isle appear in a scene from "Captain Fantastic." (Erik Simkins / AP)
George MacKay, from left, Viggo Mortensen, Annalise Basso and Samantha Isle appear in a scene from "Captain Fantastic." (Erik Simkins / AP)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

The sweetly impossible dream that is “Captain Fantastic” imagines just how it might look to step away from the quotidian banality of everyday life of America in 2016. The idea of living off the grid, raising radical liberal kids, hunting and fishing and foraging and celebrating Noam Chomsky might be escapist, but it’s steeped in current realities. Who hasn’t felt the tug to pack it in and retreat to woods in this confusing and terrifying year?

The star of this fantasy, the Captain himself, is Viggo Mortensen as Ben, father to a wild and woolly brood of six kids whom he is raising in a camp in the woods somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. They’re a hale and hearty bunch, with a rigorous training schedule of survivalist skills, combat, hunting, rock climbing, lefty radical politics, great works of literature and music. They recite his dogma back to him in the same way other kids might parrot their parents’ rules – Ben’s just happen to be far more complex and nontraditional than what you’d expect for kids their age. He practices radical honesty, refusing to sugarcoat anything and encouraging discourse based on valid arguments.

While Ben might not shield his kids from some realities of life – the details of their estranged mother’s (Trin Miller) suicide for instance – he does choose to keep them away from other things, like big box shopping centers, diner food, Christmas and other indulgences of modern life. Everyone chooses how they are going to teach their kids what’s right in the world, and Ben’s choices are thrown under the microscope of mainstream suburban culture when he ventures out of the woods to take his children to their mother’s funeral.

“Captain Fantastic” is written and directed by Matt Ross, a veteran actor, recently best known for his work on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” This is his second feature directorial effort, and the film is almost startling in how profoundly life-affirming and affecting it is. That’s due in large part to Mortensen’s wry and tender performance as a man not only committed to his ideals, but the ideals of his wife. He is tasked with looking after their children for her, and in the way that she would have wanted. His journey is to wrestle his needs, beliefs and desires into accordance with hers – and their children’s.

The misunderstandings and confusion of these forest kids who find themselves in the big wide world of strip malls and golf courses lead to plenty of hilarious, yet profound, moments. All the survivalist training in the world couldn’t prepare them for first crushes or church etiquette or Xbox, revealing the gaps in Ben’s training. But “Captain Fantastic” so convincingly immerses you in his perspective that within the film’s internal logic, his way is the only way (especially compared to his suburban nephews). If there’s any flaw, it’s that there isn’t much room for argument here.

The band of kids also give great performances across from Mortensen. Down the line, they are terrific, from eldest Bo (George MacKay) straining against his sheltered upbringing, to the tiniest one, Nai (Charlie Shotwell), wise and foul-mouthed beyond his years. While the film’s culmination might be unlikely, it’s the one that it demands, and the potent mixture of joy, sorrow, connection and hope overflows. Funny, sweet, poignant and fantastic in every sense of the word.

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