Does the world really need another dysfunctional family comedy?
In a season with superheroes on the brain, the smart, funny, trippy “Captain Fantastic” couldn’t be better timed, living up to its title not by way of a caped comic-book character or supernaturally gifted destroyer of worlds, but an idealistic father trying mightily to do right by his six children.
Written and directed by Matt Ross (familiar to most viewers from his work on “American Horror Story” and “Silicon Valley”), “Captain Fantastic” stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben, blond, bearded avatar of the counterculture who with his pretty wife, Leslie, has decided to live off the grid, raising their kids in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and teaching them to fend and think for themselves, whether that means slitting the throat of a deer and dressing it out, or celebrating Noam Chomsky Day by opening presents that include a copy of “The Joy of Sex” for a curious 6-year-old. Tough, dirty, disciplined and idyllic, the family’s self-sufficient lifestyle begins to come under strain, as the oldest son, Bodevan (George MacKay), begins to feel stirrings of independence, and a change in family fortunes sends the entire clan on a road trip to visit their far-more-uptight relatives in New Mexico.
Ross, who made his writing-directing debut four years ago with the romantic drama “28 Hotel Rooms,” vividly stages the family’s feral life in the woods, which centers around a rough-hewn shelter and an old school bus emblazoned with the name “Steve.” He’s just as adroit in navigating the tricky personal politics of “Captain Fantastic,” which sets Ben up as the heroic figure the title implies but comes to portray him every bit as unyielding and controlling as the corporations and politicians he righteously inveighs against. Working with a terrific supporting cast of attractive and spirited young actors — as well as such grown-ups as Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn — Mortensen infuses Ben with his own seductive temperament, while giving him a steely, patriarchal edge.
Visually, “Captain Fantastic” possesses the vibrant, patchwork quality of the children’s wardrobe, which runs to thrift-store finds and colorful, homemade flower crowns. Tonally, it’s funny, sad, wise and deeply touching. When “Captain Fantastic” arrives in theaters in July — in the midst of the usual summer onslaught of sequels, remakes and sundry franchise extenders — it will be just in time to save the day.
Other notables — “The Fits,” which like “Captain Fantastic” premiered at Sundance in January, has become a sensation on the festival circuit this spring. The drama, about an 11-year-old tomboy who becomes fascinated with a dance troupe, marks the highly regarded screen debut of actress Royalty Hightower. “Cafe Society” re-teams Jesse Eisenberg with Woody Allen in a romantic comedy set in 1930s Hollywood and New York. As he did in “To Rome With Love,” Eisenberg proves the ideal Allen doppelganger, exuding humor and neurosis in equal measure. Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” starring Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, earned plaudits at Sundance for boldly dramatizing Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. “Hell or High Water,” starring Ben Foster, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges, brings humor and social conscience to the modern-day western, in a story of two brothers on a bank-robbing spree and the grizzled Texas Ranger determined to catch them.