Captain Fantastic is about parents and children – specifically, about parents deciding what is best for their children, and how far that privilege should extend. To that end, the film features several parents, each with different ideas on what it means to fulfill their role: some pretty traditional, and some – like Viggo Mortensen’s character Ben Cash – decidedly not.
We’re introduced to Ben and his six children in an extremely visceral way: Ben and his eldest son Bo (George MacKay) hunt down and kill a deer in the forest with nothing but knives and their bare hands, while the others watch. It is Bo’s first kill, a rite of passage into adulthood.
It is also an example of why this role was made for Mortensen. With most other actors, this scene could have been disturbing, but Mortensen balances the action with a tenderness and sensitivity that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, creating in Ben a character that we may not quite understand, but are fully able to empathise with.
Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) decided to live and raise their family off the grid, in the wilds of America’s Pacific North-west. Rejecting the mainstream consumerist lifestyle, they live a mostly isolated life – growing and hunting their own food, home-schooling the children, and encouraging self-sufficiency through rigorous physical and intellectual training.
And sure, it all sounds hopelessly hippy-dippy, but watching Ben and his children – hiking through forests, discussing literary classics, singing and dancing around a fire at night, holding discourses on philosophy – it is difficult not to feel wistful. To eyes and minds jaded by modern living, Ben’s family seems both implausible and somehow ideal.
It isn’t quite the idyll it first seems to be, though. Leslie, we learn, is in a hospital in the city undergoing treatment. This catalyses a series of events that forces Ben and his children to once again face the world they’ve mostly left behind – or in some of the children’s cases, have never experienced.
Director and screenwriter Matt Ross has fun with the fish-out-of-water scenes of Ben’s children in suburban America, as they discover diners, supermarkets, junk food and video games, and are just as swiftly ushered away from them by their father. The large cast of children brings an exuberance to the story, and their interactions as a family are some of the movie’s best parts.
With the “real” world, though, come the people who disagree with Ben’s life choices; in particular, Ben’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Dave (Steve Zahn), and Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella). While Harper and Steve think Ben’s children need the structure and interaction of a proper school, Jack outrightly accuses Ben of child abuse and threatens to file for custody.
It is here that the film attempts to do something more complex. While it would have been easy to paint Harper or Jack as the “bad guys” to Ben’s “free spirit”, Ross instead presents them as parents too – driven by the same instinct of wanting the best for the children.
Rather than paint Ben’s choices as all positive, the story underscores that in his own way, he is as rigid within his own beliefs as the society he left behind. The more his children see and interact with the outside world, the more some of them wonder if their father’s decisions reflect their own wants.
Had the script explored this tension more, Captain Fantastic could perhaps have led to a less predictable conclusion, one that confronts the realities of rejecting social norms. Instead, the film takes a safer route.
Mortensen’s superb performance, though, carries the story through its flaws. This, coupled with the beautiful chemistry he shares with the children, provides the emotional depth we need to keep us invested in their journey to an end that may not feel surprising, but does seem fitting.
Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso