Depending where you fall on the “Should I go to Burning Man this year?” spectrum will heavily influence the enjoyment you get out of Captain Fantastic. You might see VIggo Mortensen and his kids as Christopher McCandless-esque heroes, or you could interpret them as crazy stooges who would be far better off in suburbia, getting their outdoor kicks every month or so with a trip up to Big Bear. You might see the family’s efforts to attend their mom’s funeral after she tragically killed herself as valiant and just. Or you might just side with Frank Langella that having a group of smelly hippies crash your daughter’s funeral when your son-in-law was a big contributor to her mental decline isn’t maybe the best idea.
Regardless, you will be enticed by Viggo Mortensen’s performance, who heavily commits to his stoic, stubborn philosopher-king dad character. Out of all his children, the most interesting is his eldest son Bodevan, played by George MacKay, who gives the single most poignant thought of the entire movie: that even though he’s read countless volumes of literature and can speak six languages, he has no true life experience, has never tried out for a school play and failed, never been hit the game-winning shot or lost a friend, and has never kissed a girl. He’s got a really good point, and it kind of echoes what Robin Williams nailed so perfectly in Good Will Hunting: that there really isn’t any point learning all those languages if you aren’t able to use them in the real world with real people, and just because you’ve read every work published by Aristotle or Sigmund Freud doesn’t mean you really know anything about what it means to be human.
Sadly, that dramatic turn is lost later in the film, as Matt Ross commits wholly to his vision that Viggo and his family are completely right and true and just in their vagabond efforts and that anyone who has ever shopped at a Costco or lived in a house that was over 500 square feet big is a heathen and criminal against the human spirit. The film would be so much more enlightening if it wasn’t so condemning, if we got more perception that the city and suburb folk aren’t so different or morally-corrupting than Mortensen’s kids, that there’s some kid who works at one of those treacherous fast food joints the family passes on the highway who values intelligence and rigorous thought just as much as this Bodevan or his siblings. A great scene would have been seeing the family actually eat at the diner and then one of the kids notice a teenage waiter or waitress with their head buried in a copy of Plato’s Republic on their lunch break. Sadly, the only depiction of other children we get are their smartphone-obsessed asshole cousins and a Goth girl who smokes cigarettes at a trailer park.
Personally, I fall into the “I shouldn’t go to Burning Man this year” camp and think that Mortensen and his family are dumb and that Mortensen is an abusive father that is causing his kids to miss out on crucial life experiences, that his kids are know-it-alls who won’t be able to form genuine relationships with people when they eventually leave their hippie hut, and that Frank Langella royally got fucked over just for looking out for the best interests of his grandchildren and deceased daughter. But what do I know? As someone who did not grow up in a forest nature commune, apparently very little.