Review: Captain Fantastic is unexpectedly powerful (three-and-a-half stars out of five)

It comes by its quirk honestly.

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Captain Fantastic

3.5/5 stars
Opens July 29 in select theaters.
R; 1 hr., 59 min. Directed by Matt Ross.

Writer/director Matt Ross's feature debut, Captain Fantastic feels like the pinnacle of the mid-2000s, Sundance-ready indie. Maybe that sounds insufferable to you: after all, that decade in independent film was dominated by quirky high-concept premises (Wristcutters), endearing, just-broken-enough characters (Little Miss Sunshine), and soundtracks piled high with painfully hip needle drops (Garden State, everything else).

This is certainly not my lane, I'll say that. But Captain Fantastic has a well of emotional honesty that grounds its absurdist flourishes in something genuine. Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, a survivalist who lives deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest with his six children. His wife is in the hospital for — we learn — bipolar disorder, and kills herself shortly into the film: "Last night, mommy killed herself," Mortensen tells the kids.

The opening stretch is slightly woozy; helicopter shots sweeping over acres of forest, a cloying post-rock score from Sigur Ros producer Alex Somers and blunt emotional metaphors like Mortensen sitting beneath a waterfall after he learns of his wife's death. The film proves itself adept at shading these typically indie touches with darkness, though, and it's this delicate push-pull that enables it to succeed as an unusually raw and nuanced depiction of grief.

Captain Fantastic has a well of emotional honesty that grounds its absurdist flourishes in something genuine.

This isn't to say that Captain Fantastic ends on a downbeat note, but that the journey it takes to its hopeful conclusion is unexpectedly resonant. The film doesn't gloss over the complexities of its characters or the moral thickets they navigate. Even showy moments like Mortensen crashing his wife's funeral to read her morbid, blunt will to a shocked congregation are a natural outgrowth of its solid character work. The script is equally comfortable with comic tangents about Noam Chomsky and The Joy of Sex as it is with the wrenching intimacy of half-remembered love.

French DP Stéphane Fontaine, of A Prophet and Rust and Bone, allows the verdant ambiance of the Pacific Northwest to soak into the image, but aside from a scene on a basketball court shot in harsh low-key lighting, Captain Fantastic is fairly muted. However, the film's slightly grainy, vérité texture only deepens its emotional power.

None of the choices Captain Fantastic makes are unprecedented, but the way in which it navigates a potentially insufferable premise and ends up with a story of genuine power is admirable. If indie has come to mean the carefully manicured catalogs of A24 and Annapurna Pictures, it's heartening to know that the old template still has some life in it.

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