“Captain Fantastic”: Matt Ross’s Ode to Life Off the Grid

So I caught the indie-hit Captain Fantastic (2016) recently, and after my post not long ago about adventure stories gone wrong, this is a paean to adventure as a lifestyle choice. It’s also something of a genre mixer: adventure tale + psychological realism + family saga + vehicle for eco scenery chewing. Viggo Mortensen is the star, and carries the adult side of things, while his six precocious kids are the real charm of the film.

It’s set in the Pacific Northwest, and opens with a scene in which the family, face-painted and somber, ambush a mule deer for dinner. They’re living in the woods, completely off the grid, sometimes like a primitive tribe, in renunciation of the consumer-culture whoredom that is mainstream culture. There’s much to like about this little gem, which is at turns disturbing, silly, raucous, somber, inspiring, dignified, and rambunctious. I was impressed to learn it’s the brainchild of actor/writer/director Matt Ross, who plays to perfection the devious tech-billionaire Gavin Belson in HBO’s Silicon Valley, and who also played Alby Grant, the tortured closet-homosexual polygamist in HBO’s Big Love. The moment in which Viggo’s kids ask questions about sex and end up reading The Joy of Sex is arch, squirmy fun. The plot roughly revolves around the family adapting and grieving over the suicide of Viggo’s wife and the kids’ mother, and traveling out into mainstream America to confront their history, her legacy, and the limits of home-schooling. I’d qualify it as a comedy, but Viggo Mortensen does a great job in the most tragic moments as well.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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