What is the real world? Is it the way humans live now: Snapchat, FarmVille, Flamin' Hot Cheetos? Or is it the way humans lived for 199,950 years before that? A time-traveling caveman would groan that our friends, our agriculture, and even our snacks are fake. But good luck trying to hunt deer in Manhattan.
To some, the debate isn't theoretical. Within our lifetime, they believe — or rather, they root — that today's world will be bombed back into the Stone Age by God or by enemies who believe in other gods. Of course their kids need to know how to build a fire. Then, they can lord it over all the lesser kids whose parents never let them play with matches. Their bloodline: one. Everyone else: zero.
Captain Fantastic's Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) isn't quite so crazy. But he's close. Deep in the woods, he's raised a pack of "philosopher-kings" — kids who can skin squirrels, quote Mao, speak Esperanto, and knock out 200 push-ups. So far, he has six, ranging from 17-year-old Bodevan (George MacKay) to waist-high Zaja (Shree Crooks) and her younger brother Nai (Charlie Shotwell), who's crowded his treehouse with so many skulls he looks like a kindergarten Pol Pot.
In between are two tough-as-nails teen daughters, Kielyr and Vespyr (Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso), and sour middle child Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), who would clearly rather live in the suburbs with a stocked pantry of Cheetos and Coke, not that he's tasted either of them. His dad calls soda "poison water," though he's happy to give them sips of wine. The Cash clan has never been to conventional school, which Ben swears will just make them dumber. At night by the fire, they read The Brothers Karamazov and Guns, Germs, and Steel — their version of downtime with pop quizzes on subjects from quantum entanglement to Lolita.
Yet, secretly, Bodevan's mother helped him get into every major Ivy League college. He's too nervous to tell his dad, despite Ben's belief in radical honesty. When the kids ask Ben to define "rape" and "bordello," he does. When they ask where their mother is, he's blunt: "Last night, Mommy killed herself." They burst into tears. He forces them to rock-climb in the rain.
Writer-director Matt Ross (perhaps better known for his work as an actor; he currently appears as megalomaniac billionaire Gavin Belson on HBO's Silicon Valley) has to pull off his own high-wire stunt. Ben's tactics are brutal. But his kids are superheroes, and casting fit and handsome 57-year-old Viggo makes a compelling case for having whatever he's having. Could Ben be right? Like his lead would, Ross confronts the question directly. He presents the evidence and lets us decide, even screwing with our sympathies. Captain Fantastic opens with Bodevan killing a beautiful deer, a scene that would crucify most other bright-colored indies. The camera gives us long moments to admire the deer's majesty. Then suddenly, it's on the ground, brown eyes pleading for mercy as its death rattle curdles our ears. There's no pity, not even for the audience. Ben smears the boy's face in blood, hands him the raw heart, and Bodevan chomps into the flesh. This, says the film, is the real world. Are you strong enough?
Of course, it really isn't. The real world, which the Cash clan is forced to drive through en route to their mother's funeral, has little use for their skills. They're laughed at by strangers and scorned by their sheltered cousins, who, just like Ben warned, are dumber and soggier than a pillow soaked in Mountain Dew. The Cashes are so battered with bruises and fractures that Aunt Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and their grandparents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) are justified in threatening to call child welfare. And once we're cruising past Taco Bells, Ben seems less like a noble pioneer from an ancient time than who he really is: an anti-establishment know-it-all flipping the bird to normos, the type of screw-the-sheeple narcissist who refuses to vote because the whole system is rigged. (He does, however, sport a vintage Jesse Jackson '88 t-shirt, probably from the last time he gave a damn.)
The dialogue is dense and quick and brainy. When Ben tries to cheer up the kids by celebrating Noam Chomsky Day, the youngest blurts, "But Noam was born on December 7!" Ironically, this healthy-living campaign adds a lot of sugar, like the goofy red suit Ben wears to his wife's funeral service, and a sing-along of "Sweet Child O' Mine." Captain Fantastic's creaky old bus speeds toward cloying, like Little Miss Sunshine with a Manson beard. Yet the struggle to reconcile the kids' safety with the kids' supremacy tied my conscience into knots, especially since Ross takes both sides to their extremes: conservative suburban ignorance versus stubborn progressive idealism. Both sides are certain they're right. Neither will budge. Now that sounds like the real world.