Family is a complex idea, and one that means something different to everyone. No two people have the same experience from growing up and that’s part of what makes us who we are. If we all had the same childhoods we’d have nothing to talk about in novels, movies, stand-up comedy, or a shrink’s office. But the idea of how children “should” be raised does make its way into the public sphere; the question of what may or may not be abusive or harmful is at the forefront of modern parenting. Captain Fantastic shows a family dealing with these questions in a touching, delightfully warped way.
Written and directed by Matt Ross—whom you might know as Gavin Belson on Silicon Valley, in addition to many other memorable acting roles—Captain Fantastic is the portrait of a man who is truly trying to do his best for his kids (all six of them) but has sort of brainwashed them into believing and thinking the way he does. That’s fairly common, but when the person doing the rearing is a hyper-intellectual, government-distrusting, off-the-land-living survivalist, the idea of a “normal” childhood goes out the window. But is it harmful?
Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, the father of six kids ranging in age from about four to 18. He and his family live in relative isolation on a plot of forest in the Pacific Northwest. Every day, he has the children do hours of physical activity and survivalist training, as well as hours of reading books he assigns them, usually far above their age’s usual reading level and comprehension. His eldest son, Bo (George MacKay) becomes “a man” when he hunts and kills a deer with his bare hands and a knife at the beginning of the film, but has also secretly been applying to colleges. He manages to get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, MIT, etc… he’s smart.
The brood’s matriarch is absent, away at a hospital for some kind of illness. Early on in the film, we find out she has killed herself because she was bipolar and had been away seeking help near her rich parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) in New Mexico. Her father, naturally, hates Ben and thinks what he’s done to his daughter and grandchildren is deplorable. He forbids them from going to the funeral, but the kids, having been raised with a “F*** the Man!” mentality, want to go anyway. So they all pile in to a school bus that’s been converted into an RV (it’s named “Steve”) and make their way south to put a stop to the ceremony, which goes against everything the Buddhist woman put in her will.
This is a movie that brings up a lot of very valid questions about parenting in the 21st Century and beyond. Ben doesn’t lie to his kids; he tells them anything they ask about bluntly and clinically. He’s taught them not only facts and dates but to think critically about the world and interpret the meaning of things around them. But they also can’t function in society, having never been around kids they weren’t related to for more than a minute or two at a time. We get scenes with Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband (Steve Zahn) and their two perfectly average—meaning uninterested in learning and general unpleasant—adolescent sons, and this idea of what’s “proper” to teach kids comes into question.
But beyond the intellectual ideas of the film, and of trying to turn children into Utopian “Philosopher Kings,” the movie is about a man struggling with whether or not he’s made the right decisions as a father, a husband, and a person. He’s never grown out of the University Boy mentality of being anti-authority, pro-intellectualism, militantly anti-militant. He’s brought his children to their physical and mental peak, but they’ve also never had a hot dog or been to Disneyland. All of this is called into question more and more as he deals with his wife’s death, and the movie slyly lets us know that rebellious youth is unavoidable, and children truly are a reflection of their parents. Whether the family can withstand the inevitable upheaval is where the heart of Captain Fantastic truly lies.
I greatly enjoyed this movie, and while it veers toward the saccharine by the end, you feel like you’ve gone on the journey with Ben and the uniquely named children. The kind of journey we haven’t seen before but wish we had.
Featured Image: Bleeker Street Films