A deer wanders through the forest of the Pacific Northwest, unaware it is being observed by a teenage boy camouflaged against the foliage. Suddenly, he makes his move and plunges a knife into the animal's throat, killing it and bringing the other six members of his family around to carry it back to their woodland home. This is the way they have been taught to survive in the wilderness by the father, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), and their number should have been seven, but their mother has been struggling with a bipolar disorder and was recently hospitalised, so life in this tiny community continues much as it has for years, with whatever Ben says whatever the kids do. However, when bad news reaches them, how much longer can this state of affairs continue?
Actor turned director Matt Ross won himself a cult hit with Captain Fantastic, a title that really needed a question mark after it, since it's up for debate how fantastic Ben's tutelage is. For some members of the audience, he was the embodiment of the free will and spirit that made America great, for others he was against that very thing he claimed to espouse, and Ross was so keen to deliver a balanced perspective that both camps could have agreed with that either could have been correct. All through the story the father is challenged by other characters as to the wisdom of his extreme home schooling regime, initially by his wife who we learn has committed suicide in that hospital.
Was it Ben's strict tenets that pushed her over the edge into oblivion, or would she have been ill anyway, her final child plunging her into a post-natal depression she found impossible to escape? Or was it a combination of the two? Again, the writer-director's moves to be all things to all people refused to pin the blame on any one person, even though Ben's unconventional obsessions would appear to an outsider to be foolhardy; you had to make up your own mind with this one. Nevertheless, you could, if you were open to Ben's philosophies, understand how he simultaneously had a point in his leaving society behind and had lost the plot by dragging along the kids who had no real say in the matter.
Most of them are quite happy to be there, yet they have not experienced life outside of what amounts to a ludicrously extended outward bound course so are not in a position to judge. Only the eldest, Bodevan (George Mackay) - the children have been given "unique" names by their parents - has applied for universities and the learning that Ben and his wife have offered him has made him something of an academic prodigy, but he cannot bring himself to admit to his father that he could be leaving the family behind for a conventional education, fearful of his reaction. In light of the way, for example, Ben insists on celebrating Noam Chomsky day instead of Christmas, you can see his beliefs in the right on and liberty-fixated could become as much a tyranny as a Bible-bashing patriarch denying his kids any free thought.
Certainly when to appease the grieving offspring Ben decides to take them to the funeral, much against the wishes of his wife's wealthy, conservative father (Frank Langella) who is furious with him, then you can envisage little but trouble ahead as the family have opportunities to interact with those who have not thrown off the yoke of oppressive conventional thinking or whatever Ben thinks he is doing. But Ross did an interesting thing, he found the humour in the situation, and there are some big laughs as the intellectually smart but socially clueless brood meet with largely bemused ordinary citizens. This appeared to be leading up to a major confrontation, and if it had ended about twenty minutes before it did Ross might have been on to something provocative and mentally stimulating, which made it all the more of a pity that he gave in to sentimentality and offered up a conclusion so twinkly that it might as well have been taking place in Ben's dream. Ending on a folk version of Sweet Child O' Mine was not as moving as he seemed to believe, and made you consider that this lot would be very hard to take if you met them in reality. Music by Alex Somers.