I’m usually one to let a movie simmer in my mind for at least a few hours before delivering an assessment of it. I like to hear others’ opinions and to have a few discussions about a film first, and only then do I decide upon its merits. But when my husband leaned over to ask what I thought as the credits rolled for Captain Fantastic, I was able to deliver the simple, precise review that I loved it. Captain Fantastic is, quite simply, one of the most satisfying dramas I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time.
My interest was initially piqued by a trailer showcasing the pristine wooded setting, an Oregon forest where Viggo Mortenson’s character Ben raises his six children completely off the grid, providing them with rigorous mental and physical “training.” Ben’s comprehensive version of unofficial homeschooling involves things as varied as Buddhist meditation, daily runs through the woods, a close reading of all the literary classics, hunting skills, a strong yoga practice, knowledge of how to set a broken bone, and the ability to carry on philosophical debate, just to name a few. The result is a vibrant, close-knit family unit, one whose members are highly educated critical thinkers, shunners of the capitalism and consumerism that define the mainstream culture they despise, and self-reliant outdoorsmen. The children not only subscribe to Ben’s way of raising them, they thrive under it, demonstrating mastery of high intellectual concepts and enviable physical prowess.
Writer-director Matt Ross introduces audiences to his characters with countless scenes of Ben and his children going through their typical daily routine. In fact, he devotes a large portion of the first act of the film to simply showcasing the utterly unconventional lifestyle of this family. But Ross’ arduous efforts never grow tiresome or boring. We see the children run through gorgeous, untouched forests; we bear witness to Bo, the oldest of Ben’s kids, kill his first deer, which his younger siblings then proceed to dismember; we watch as the children eagerly read classic novels and philosophical texts, delivering thoughtful opinions on them to their father; we view scenes of meditation circles, dinners made over a campfire, and jam sessions in which every family member fully contributes to the musical cacophony they collectively create. These scenes of family life feel absolutely idyllic, set against the background of the pristine Pacific Northwest wilderness and colored by the delightfully mismatched patchwork clothing worn by the family. It’s hard to resist the pull of the life that Ben has so carefully constructed for his children.
But at times, it almost feels as though Ross is trying to convince his audience that Ben has made a good choice in raising his children this way. The ideology which motivated Ben to forge such a path with his kids is made evidently clear from the way he constantly talks about modern society, government, and the like, to the way in which his children speak of various economic, religious, and political systems. And Ross takes advantage of every opportunity in which the plot allows Ben’s children to show off their smarts. Undoubtedly, the children’s degree of knowledge and intelligence surpasses that of most other children their age educated in traditional school settings, as well as that of many adults viewing the film too. While I certainly didn’t mind getting so many glimpses of this strange and wonderful world, Ross really didn’t have to try so hard to get me on his protagonist’s side; I was hooked on this lifestyle from pretty early on in the film. But once Ben’s parenting decisions are thrown into question, it becomes clear why Ross found it necessary to push them so heavily on us at the outset.
The real crux of the plot is centered around events related to the children’s mother Leslie which force them out of their woodland home. We understand that she was fully on board with the way that Ben is currently raising their children. And early on in the film, her absence is explained in a conversation that alludes to her residing in some sort of medical institution. In time, audiences come to find that her parents, particularly her father (winningly portrayed by Frank Langella), denied her agency in deciding to raise their grandchildren as she and her husband did. These frictions within the family, as well as those with the children’s aunt (played by Kathryn Hahn), uncle (portrayed by Steve Zahn), and cousins, are both opportunities to showcase the humorous way that living apart from society can lead to mishaps in social interaction and circumstances when big questions about how to balance one’s ideals with the demands of society, about how best to raise a child, and about what types of experiences are the most important ones to provide children are raised – and never clearly answered. It is when Ben is forced to take his family out of their paradisal home and into the wider world that these questions come to the forefront, leaving me with the type of ambivalence and uncertainty that only great stories can evoke.
These heavy questions, however, are tempered with brilliant moments of levity, many of them unexpected. It is this balance that makes the movie so compelling. Once the first third of the film documenting the daily life of Ben and company in the woods is through, the movie grows more dramatic and a bit darker. But the change in tone never feels jarring as Ross undercuts difficult scenes by following them up with hilarious moments ranging from a teenage son not understanding social conventions and references after receiving his first kiss to children breaking out into song as though they were traveling Christian evangelists to throw others off their scent. I found the humor in the movie surprising but well-placed, unusual but satisfying. Much of this is owed to Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben. Never one to take himself too seriously, nor afraid to show his true nature in front of his children, Ben often reacts to distressing situations with grace and a light temperament, endearing himself to audiences as a principled and loving, if unconventional, father. The film provides a portrait of parenthood that is ultimately appealing and enviable, despite Ben’s missteps and socially unacceptable decisions. Again, it’s all about balance, and Mortenson is able to find the sweet spot that makes his complicated character work.
While Mortenson’s performance supports the film immeasurably, I would be remiss not to give due credit to the young actors for their brilliant portrayals of his children. It’s pretty remarkable to see such strong performances across the board in a film with six young actors playing characters aged six to eighteen years old. Writer-director Ross also deserves a nod here too; in the space of 119 minutes, all six of the children were considerably well-developed characters, each with their own singular personalities, aptitudes, obstacles, and interests. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could easily develop a particular feel for each child’s storyline in under two hours of running time. The eldest son Bo, portrayed by George MacKay (who was also excellent in The Boys Are Back), struggles with relating to others outside his family unit, particularly females, and with deciding upon whether and where to attend college. Meanwhile the youngest daughter Zaja has many unanswered questions about sex that her father is not afraid to answer frankly, to Zaja’s horror and revulsion. Rellian, the second oldest son, has the most difficulty accepting his father’s decisions and, as a young adolescent, has just as much trouble figuring out how to channel that rage and confusion. Each child feels nuanced and real, a true feat given the size of this cast.
All in all, Captain Fantastic is a real treat of a film, a continually surprising and constantly thought-provoking drama about family life unlike much of anything I’ve ever seen before. You’ll find yourself drawn into a remarkably enticing world, lured by compelling performances all around, only to later question all that you thought you believed. Ross’s ability to effortlessly twist the story, and viewers’ answers to the questions it raises, is a feat the likes of which I haven’t experienced in the theater for some time. I’m fascinated by every element of this film, from the actors’ performances to the writing and dialogue, from the gorgeous setting to the way Ross had me laughing and thinking hard and crying in such quick succession. This movie stands as a great example of independent filmmaking at its very best.