Captain Fantastic

Quirky comedy?

If potential moviegoers view the poster for Captain Fantastic, they may get the wrong impression. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) wears a bright-red suit while flanked by his six children, who are dressed in clothes ranging from semi-formal blazers and dresses to pajamas and a green jumpsuit with gas mask. They stand next to Steve, the family bus.

Anyone expecting to see a comedic, fish-out-of-water story will be disappointed. Anyone willing to be simultaneously entertained and challenged will be rewarded.

The poster screams QUIRKY COMEDY! Even the film’s name implies something whimsical. While the movie is quirky and features comedic moments, the film is primarily steeped in drama. The poster doesn’t truly convey what the film is: a thought-provoking character study of Ben, and a look at the perils of parenthood from a completely different angle.

Ben and his wife, Leslie, made a conscious decision to remove their family from mainstream society, and live tucked away in a Pacific Northwest forest. They name their kids uniquely, selecting names that they don’t believe exist anywhere else. The six kids learn to hunt, climb rocks, and survive. They are also as book smart as kids can be, reading around the fire nightly. It’s an intense, isolated, homeschool environment.

Missing from the early scenes is Leslie. While we see her in flashbacks, we learn that she is receiving treatment for bipolar disorder. When Leslie takes her own life, her father Jack (Frank Langella) blames Ben, and implores him to stay away from the funeral or face arrest. Spurred on by the kids’ wishes to say goodbye to their mother, Ben and the kids pack up Steve and head off to New Mexico to crash the funeral.

The kids exhibit tremendous intellectual prowess. Youngest child Zaja can explain the importance of the Bill of Rights, they celebrate “Noam Chomsky Day,” and when they’re talking about a book, Ben prods them to go beyond the plot and explore and analyze the text’s true meaning. But while the kids have read extensively about the world, they have never been fully integrated in it.

The transition into societal acclimation is awkward. Oldest child Bodevere (George MacKay) is interested in the girls he sees but doesn’t know how to approach them. When he does, he struggles in embarrassing fashion. When the family visits relatives on the way south, the six kids look generally bewildered as their cousins play violent video games. Ben has lived within the framework of American society before, but chooses to greet his disdain for it head-on. He shares his beliefs openly and doesn’t sugarcoat any remarks. While those around him tiptoe around the circumstances of Leslie’s death, Ben tells the truth. He is bent on telling everyone about Leslie’s true wishes, which don’t include the formal funeral her parents have planned.

Ben believes he is doing the right thing for his children, to the point that his ideals sometimes impair his parental decision making. Ben’s choices toggle between being commendable and being unnerving. His behavior is loving and caring at best, self-serving and illegal at worst. As we learn more about Ben, his kids, and his marriage, it’s easy to feel sympathy and disdain for him simultaneously.

Mortensen plays Ben with great conviction. Ben is even-keeled, stoic, and unapologetic. Writer/director Matt Ross created a complex, flawed, compelling character, and Mortensen brings him to life. And while Ben is an extreme character, he is a microcosm of parenting. I recommend the movie to all parents, even though the film is uncomfortable to watch at times. Parenting is difficult, and failure (with good intent) is an everyday occurrence. Since I’m a father of two living in Oregon, I would probably see any parenting movie set in the Pacific Northwest, even if it starred actors I don’t enjoy, like Adam Sandler and Roseanne Barr. Luckily, in this case, Captain Fantastic is worth watching.

The superficial poster is probably designed to reach a larger audience, but it doesn’t hint at the movie’s difficult themes. Anyone expecting to see a comedic, fish-out-of-water story will be disappointed. Anyone willing to be simultaneously entertained and challenged will be rewarded.

3.5 out of 4 stars. Rated R for language and nudity (Mortensen drinking coffee naked while standing in the doorway of the bus).


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.