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Former Ashlander Ross' 'Captain Fantastic' is complex and wonderful

Captain Fantastic; 119 min; Rated R

“Captain Fantastic,” written and directed by former Ashlander Matt Ross, finds a complex and revelatory sweet spot and expands on it. In so many ways, this film is sublimely poetic while remaining firmly grounded as it probes the many facets of what it means to be a parent.

It is also an engaging and captivating character study. At the film’s center is Ben, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, a gifted, nuanced actor who inhabits Ben completely as he grapples with all of the subtle and overt challenges of being a single parent to six very independent children.

But their collective lives are not lived in a suburban, two-story home somewhere on the West Coast; rather, home is a camp or sorts, nestled in the verdant forest of the Pacific Northwest. They live in a place apart, off the grid, and their existence, that of the children, mirrors the values of their father. He strives to instill in them a fearlessness toward life, to think for themselves, to let their minds engage in the seminal questions of purpose and existence, questions that dominate their days and, with the urging of Ben, fill their evenings as they search for answers in books and more books, from literature to philosophy to biology and history; his oldest son, Bodevan (George McKay), has recently decided he is a Maoist, a declaration that prompts a smile from Ben.

As well they are schooled to be survivalists, to engage in extreme rock climbing, hunting, hand-to-hand combat, and they find together a harmony and web of support and concern that so often eludes families surrounded by the trappings and distractions of a consumer-driven pop culture saturated with electronics.

What tests (nee fractures) this harmony is the death of their mother in a hospital in New Mexico where she was taken for treatment. The children, at first devastated, argue — against the wishes of Ben — that they want above all else to attend their mother’s funeral. Ben fears the journey could have unintended consequences; however, he finally relents.

And suddenly these children of the forest, with all of their attendant skills, are confronted with a culture steeped in all that Ben has attempted to shield them from: television, Gameboy, Walmart and a funeral, organized by their grandparents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd), a religious ceremony that they know is against the wishes of their mother.

This immersion is both humorous and revealing and, for most of the children, jaw-dropping. These are not feral children, but neither are they, for all of their resilience, children of this century.

Painfully, gradually, Ben is faced with a truth that he has tried to avoid: While his children are supremely prepared for a good part of life, they are also woefully lacking in so many other aspects of what it means to live in a complete world. His didacticism — embedded with his values and convictions and love — has been his gift to them. But the revelation that haunts him is that their lives have been unexpectedly truncated, their prism while wide and encompassing and rich has also been too narrow. Perhaps Ben has loved his children too much.

“Captain Fantastic” is a beautifully crafted film, a story that is life-affirming and lovely, thanks in great part to exceptional writing by Ross and a fine ensemble of actors, all wonderful.

Surprisingly, this story comes along at a time when so much of our lives can feel disjointed, and our values seemingly inadequate to the issues that confront us. In essence, our contemporary grid can sometimes seem frayed, at times empty and unfulfilling. And so, Thoreau’s simplicity beckons, the quiet voice that urges us to wander off the grid; it can feel so seductive, the vision/fantasy seemingly idyllic.

But there are larger truths involved than simply leaving the grid. And it is those truths that gradually begin to confront Ben and challenge his vision of the ideal. And it is those truths and their inherent cost that make up the thematic structure of this wonderful film.

As an aside: Matt Ross, who wrote and directed “Captain Fantastic,” is a former Ashlander. He graduated from Ashland High School and then went on to study at Julliard, in New York. His resume’ is impressive as an actor, writer and director.