Captain Fantastic was about a father who raised his kids in the woods because he did not trust modernity. It was a terrible movie, mainly because the grown man (Viggo Mortensen) wouldn’t shut up about his philosophy and how superior it was. This movie is about another father (Ben Foster) who insists on living off the grid with his teenage daughter. This is a better film, and the relationship between Foster and Thomason McKenzie is well developed. But their circumstances suffer from too little explication. Why are they off the grid? What brought them to this extremist situation? All we really know is that Mom is dead, Foster is introverted and plagued and that as much as he appears to love his daughter, he is really just making her share his demons.
McKenzie is accomplished as the girl torn between loyalty to her Dad and a need to connect with and be in the wider world. Her desire to commune, to be a part of, is heart-rending. Writer-director Deborah Granik’s Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and I can see this film doing the same for McKenzie. Foster, as always, is stellar as the troubled father, economical and precise. There is a scene where he is required to answer a computerized voice asking him true or false questions to determine his mental health that he handles beautifully.
There is also a thematic bright spot. The duo are consistently helped by people who are outgoing, caring and supportive, and yet, Foster rejects all their assistance, underscoring just how near impossible it is to deal with many mentally ill people. The system and surrounding community are, for a change, not the villains. They’re the heroes. And for the most part, it ain’t enough.