The setting is the lush, crisp and clear forests of the Pacific Northwest. We see an authoritative, stern and unwavering Ben (Viggo Mortensen) putting his children through the ropes of intensive exercise, hunting, book reading sessions and revelry around campfires. Together, the family have existed alone in the woods for some time and for the majority of the six children’s lives, who range from teenage adolescents to young kids. Homeschooled by Ben and his absent wife they are highly intelligent, liberal and athletic, but lack simple social skills.
To begin with, the audience enters an involuntary evaluation process of the family. How do they function? Is it an unhealthy set-up? Is it a sustainable lifestyle? They are all questions that stream through the mind, and ones that writer-director Matt Ross addresses directly.
Captain Fantastic is a film where the audience sees a family going through their own therapeutic process after having heard their Mother has passed, the Mother who is a clear sign of stability and affection for all. What’s unravelling is Ben and his wife’s version of a creative utopia, along with the realisation that Ben and the children have to enter a world they’ve purposefully avoided in order to honour the Mother’s wish of being cremated due to her Buddhist beliefs.
While it all sounds a bit quaint, Ross beautifully mingles doses of a truly alternative lifestyle with hard-hitting life questions. The moment Ben breaks the news that the children’s Mother has passed, the realisation that Ben himself may have contributed towards his wife’s death and the aversion Ben and the children show towards capitalist America are approached in a way that makes the film jump from simple to sublime. The comedy is injected by the energetic and angelic children, all of whom play their part brilliantly. Highlights include the impromptu celebration of Noam Chomsky’s birthday and the array of hunting knifes they all receive as presents, as well as the time they all pretend to be god-fearing Christians to repel a police officer.
The sub-plot to Captain Fantastic is how Ben is deserving of the moniker bestowed upon him. This questions the ethics and morality of human beings and whether a life away from a capitalist society could work, and specifically whether a Father has the right to govern his children in such a way. What the audience is left with is a residual feeling of hope for the family.
The film was inspired by Ross’ own venture into fatherhood and the way this made him question humanity. Captain Fantastic is no doubt an incredible leap from this but the metaphor, as extreme as it is, works perfectly.
Captain Fantastic is a gripping, awe-inspiring and humbling story of the boundless journey of a family to honour their Mother, it’s no doubt one of the best films of the year within its genre.