Release Date: July 15, 2016
Director: Matt Ross
Writer: Matt Ross
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler
MPAA Rating: R
From the opening shot of the incredibly-gripping Captain Fantastic, writer/director Matt Ross puts you into the world of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father raising six kids somewhere off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. You see the world through Ben’s eyes and come to understand his unconventional worldview even as you, and Ben, question if his way of life is the right one.
We learn that Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) chose to raise their kids deep in the wilderness, teaching them to think and fend for themselves. But Leslie was bipolar, a condition that deteriorated rapidly in the wild. She returned to civilization to seek treatment, but with her health continuing to decline, she took her own life.
This all happens off-screen. We learn about her death when Bill does, on a phone call with his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) on one of his trips into town for supplies. When he learns of Leslie’s death, Ben reaches out to her parents to make funeral arrangements, but her father Jack (Frank Langella) lashes out at him, blaming Ben for her death. Ben decides to drive the kids to the funeral, which sets off a series of events that causes Ben, and us, to question his way of life.
There are times when the film makes a strong case for Ben’s parenting style. At one point, Harper tries to convince him to enroll his kids in public school so that they can get a “proper” education. Ben responds by asking her two teenage boys what the Bill of Rights is, which they both struggle to answer. Then he asks his eight-year-old, who is able to recite the document verbatim and give an informed take on its significance. Ben’s children are critical thinkers in peak physical shape who can take care of themselves and who have forged their own worldviews.
But there’s a downside. Bo (George MacKay), the oldest kid, has absolutely no social skills. He doesn’t know how to talk to or relate to kids his own age – particularly girls. And while his intellect and test scores got him accepted into all of the top colleges in the country, he hides the acceptance letters from his father for fear he won’t approve.
There’s also a physical danger to their lifestyle. All of the children are bruised and scarred from their survival training, which involves Ben pitting them against each other to learn how to disarm an attacker. We see one child badly injure his hand on a rock climbing expedition in the rain. They all carry knives and other weapons to hunt and to protect themselves.
I love the moral ambiguity of the film. We are conditioned to be skeptical of a family like theirs. Their existence is abnormal, so we naturally question it. But, by fully immersing us into their world and building that world so vividly, Matt Ross makes us empathize with Ben. You find yourself rooting for him against Jack and Harper and anyone else who thinks he should return to civilization, even though they probably have a point. (And even as the film hints that Leslie had her own apprehensions about their lifestyle.) Leaving the theater, I still wasn’t sure how to feel about their living situation. I love that I was never given a definitive answer.
Viggo Mortensen, unsurprisingly, gives a captivating, emotionally-resonant performance as Ben. George MacKay also really stood out, though all of the kids were given a chance to shine. (I really appreciated that all six children has distinct personalities and quirks.) Kathryn Hahn, Frank Langella and Ann Dowd all gave really powerful supporting performances.
Captain Fantastic is a really compelling, thought-provoking film (albeit one with a bizarre name that doesn’t really fit the material). If you like stories that challenge you and transport you to a different world, I highly recommend it.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org