Captain Fantastic
Directed by: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Samantha Isler
Rated: R for language and brief graphic nudity
Runtime: 1 hr., 58 mins.

Have you noticed lately the rise of reality TV shows on cable about families living off the grid in Alaska? Shows such as Alaskan Bush People and Alaska: The Last Frontier?

Now imagine a father with six children deep in the Pacific Northwest mountains raising his family to be completely self-sufficient. Their routines include exercise, academics, hunting and self-defense. In the opening scenes, the oldest son kills a deer with a knife as a blood ritual for manhood. Severe? Well, it’s not Little House on the Prairie, that’s for sure.

But this, I think, is writer and director Matt Ross’ challenge to the viewer. As we come to see, it’s a matter of parental assumptions and traditions, or in the case of the Cash family, nontraditions, all colliding head-on.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and Leslie (Trin Miller) Cash are the leaders of their children’s regimens. Up early in the morning. Running across mountaintops. Taking care of the small family farm. Being quizzed by their father on academics. The children range in age from early school to college eligible, but they all work together and participate in their father’s scheduled routines. Perhaps harsh to those who live in the city, but to the Cash tribe, a normal day. The kids have never known anything different.

Unfortunately, Leslie has been hospitalized for being severely bipolar, leaving Ben to handle everything. One day, Ben goes into the local store to call and find out how his wife is doing. Leslie’s sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), tearfully tells him that Leslie has committed suicide. When Ben talks to the grandfather, Jack (Frank Langella), Jack clearly informs him that they are not welcome at Leslie’s funeral and that he blames Ben for his daughter’s death.

As Ben learns, Leslie has left a will stating her specific funeral wishes. Jack is planning the funeral his way (church service, casket, tombstone, etc.). Ben knows that Leslie wants the exact opposite. After much in-family debate, they all board their bus, whimsically named “Steve,” and head for Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their mission: To rescue their dead mother and make sure her burial wishes are carried out.

Director Matt Ross, best known as Alby on the hit TV show Big Love, is pitting one strong set of beliefs against another and testing both sides of the argument. He shows strength both in writing and directing, being careful not to push too hard on either point of view.

In fact, he is adept at showing that either side of the parental argument has both right and wrong conclusions, and this is the dilemma of parenting. There’s no single handbook for raising kids. Parents choose what they believe and try to bring up their children accordingly, and kids eventually come to choose their own paths.

The story itself is told with both drama and humor, and even though the ending may feel a little too neat, it’s the journey that matters. Ross has an engaging cast and a very interesting father vs. father showdown between Mortensen and Langella.

But it’s the kids who provide the spark, from the intensity of son Bo (George MacKay) to the creativity of Kielyr (Samantha Isler) to the unabashed questions of youngest son Nai (Charlie Shotwell). Ross skillfully shows how parenting is always a work in progress and that compromise is as necessary for survival as any deadly weapon.

There’s a lot of heart and humor in Captain Fantastic. You may cringe at the arguments for traditional versus nontraditional parenting, but with this family, there’s never a dull moment. Whether or not you choose to send your kids up a sheer mountain wall, you will leave thinking about your own parenting issues and wondering what really makes for a good family. That is Ross’ intention, I think, and one that will always be up for debate.