Movie Review: Captain Fantastic

A heroic tale of unconventional parenting... or, what would happen if the Unabomber had a family

Captain Fantastic


Written and directed by Matt Ross. Starring Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Nicholas Hamilton, Frank Langella, Missi Pyle, Steve Zahn, Kathryn Hahn, Erin Moriarty, Annalise Basso, Ann Dowd, Shree Crooks, Yolanda Aragon.

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The challenges of raising a family are rarely so adeptly put to the screen as they are in Captain Fantastic, a not-entirely-successful look at unconventional parenting that throws a lot of ideas out there and (mostly) lets the viewer decide what’s right and wrong.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has raised his six children in almost complete isolation from the outside world with his wife in the middle of the forest for the past fifteen years.

The family has a strict daily regiment – hunting, gathering, physical exercise and education – but the patriarch speaks to all of his children as adults, depicted in an uncomfortably funny scene where Ben bluntly explains the mechanics of sex to his inquisitive, and disgusted, five year-old daughter.

They’re (mostly) happy, highly skilled in the practical elements of living, well-versed in literature and politics and philosophy. They live a life that has been become all-but extinct in modern society, and yet idealized and envied by many.

But they’re also at a crisis: Ben’s wife and the mother of the children has just died following a battle with a lengthy illness.

She was sent to civilization to be treated at a hospital, and now her father (Frank Langella) – who has never seen most of his grandchildren – plans to give her a Christian burial, in direct contrast with her wishes, while forbidding Ben from attending the funeral.

What follows combines elements of road movie and fish-out-of-water comedy as Ben and the kids make their way down the west coast to see Mom off.

“Are all these people sick?” Ben’s daughter asks him while gawking at a scene most of us are witness to every day. “They’re all so fat!”

It would be easy for the film to paint Ben and his brood as unconventional but superior to their civilized counterparts: they are, after all, refined human specimens who may be better adept at survival than some military veterans, and also free-thinkers who celebrate the teachings of Noam Chomsky (“Noam Chomsky Day” replaces Christmas in their holiday calendar).

And the film does, ultimately, seem to take sides, particularly in scenes contrasting Ben’s well-behaved, knowledgeable children with those of his sister (Katheryn Hayn), who are addicted to video games, impolite, and unable to describe what the Bill of Rights is. You may find such scenes unfair, and you would not be entirely wrong.

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But it’s clear that while his kids may be in better shape – mentally and physically – than their more ‘civilized’ counterparts, they also lack something: there’s social element, that’s clear, but also something less tangible. You can’t live a life in isolation and suddenly adjust to the outside world, even with all the textbook knowledge about it at your disposal (the recent Room touched on some similar themes, in a more effective manner). 

I liked how the grandfather, played by Langella, represents everything that Ben has raised his children to reject – he seems to live in a mansion on a golf course – and yet he’s still reasoned, and well-spoken, and genuinely cares for his daughter and grandchildren. Society has molded him into who he is, but it has not turned him evil.

Captain Fantastic, like its protagonist, is idealistic and strongheaded, and while its heart is always in the right place it doesn’t always seem to know where to place that energy. It’s also about twenty minutes too long, and without a consistent story thread to string it all together, tends to lurch from scene to scene.

But it deserves a lot of credit for tackling issues that other movies would take for granted, and trying to find compromise between points of view that are worlds apart.

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