“Your mother is dead”
When you look at the poster for Captain Fantastic—especially the bright red suit worn by Cash family patriarch Ben (Viggo Mortensen)—you can’t help conjure twee thoughts of Wes Anderson quirk and yet Matt Ross‘ sophomore feature is anything but. This film is instead rooted in a very strong sense of reality. Just because it may not be your reality doesn’t lessen the events occurring or decisions made. If anything they’re strengthened because you notice the choices your parents made and you’ve made as parents in this rugged intellectual far-removed from the constraints of a consumerist society. He might shield his kids from a lifestyle that threatened to destroy him, but they’ve grown to be “philosopher kings” despite detractors saying they couldn’t. These wunderkinds are uniquely special.
How are they as regular people, though? The fact eldest son Bo (George MacKay) must hide his acceptance letters to every Ivy League school he applied to proves the answer isn’t good. He yearns to attend college and learn within a world that doesn’t solely contain his parents and five siblings, but he fears what his father will say. What Ben forgets is that he experienced civilization before deciding to go off the grid into the wilderness. He understands social cues and human interactions in a way his children can’t mimic having never gone through it themselves. Bo realizes this and finds it difficult to reconcile pragmatic viewpoints on spirituality and politics with hormonal urges to converse with a community that may never be his intellectual equal.
Making his kids (Samantha Isler‘s Kielyr, Annalise Basso‘s Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton‘s Rellian, Shree Crooks‘ Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell‘s Nai round out the sextet) into a clan of confident Übermenschs means Ben’s also molded them into naïve innocents without the skills to adjust to a life they’ll soon need to engage. Even if they remain by his side in the forest, hunting and building and learning, maturation leads to a desire to break-free at least enough to find love and start a family of their own. Where are suitable candidates that won’t laugh or call them freaks? Where are their equals in body, mind, and soul to truly attach beyond lustful desire? Ben and Leslie (Trin Miller) found each other because they resided in the world they’ve now rejected.
Theirs is therefore a hard life with struggles. Telling the truth without fail is, like most philosophical ideals, good on paper if not perfect in practice. So when Leslie passes away, knowing the reasons why is both a way to cope quickly and place blame. She had long battled depression and the children were cognizant of her pain. Did their isolation harm more than help? Should Ben and the kids have been at her side during treatment down in New Mexico near her parents’ (Frank Langella‘s Jack and Ann Dowd‘s Abigail) massive estate standing for everything they despised? And now that she’s dead, what’s more important: honoring her wishes to be cremated no matter the consequences or allowing those “less enlightened” than them to mourn her their way?
The latter query sparks their adventure to crash the funeral Leslie’s father already threatened arrest for attending. It becomes a “mission” like many others and as such doesn’t impede their usual “lessons” besides adding a change of scenery. They still do yoga and run to maintain their physiques. They still read with periodic status reports more involved than mere summary. And they still celebrate Noam Chomsky Day with cake and presents as the one reprieve of sugar received per year. But the farther they go from the forest, the less wild and familiar things get. Suddenly their source of food grazes on farms; people unused to their nudity are turning away; and even family (Kathryn Hahn‘s Aunt Harper and Steve Zahn‘s Uncle Dave) give more backlash than support.
Ben never wavers, though. We respect his attention to detail and the results he’s received, laughing when his youngest child explains the Bill of Rights to his high school-aged nephew because it’s one more win for the “hippie” column we believe will somehow prevail over the domineering Jack still just a disembodied voice on the phone. But even though Captain Fantastic is often sweetly endearing and delightfully funny, Ross refuses to deliver the oddball comedy most others would have defaulted towards. Our embracement of Ben’s ways instead gets thrown back in our faces. What seemed idyllic outside of society suddenly proves borderline abusive and extremely dangerous in context with civilization. These masters of their domain are on foreign land and they are not ready for what’s to come.
Or maybe it’s Ben who isn’t ready. His children revel in the excitement the life he’s given them supplies, but they’re also aware of what’s missing. Finding a balance between these two worlds becomes real to them just as their father tries harder and harder to block the notion of capitalism from their eyes despite its size and scope inherently stealing a glimpse. They’re so used to surviving off the land that a “mission” to free food from a supermarket through a thieving charade doesn’t seem wrong. Bo has been isolated so long that the first sign of affection from the opposite sex (Erin Moriarty‘s Claire) culminates in an inappropriately fast declaration of love. The signals they receive from outsiders make them uncomfortable enough to question their reality.
And there’s a secret left uncovered, one that has Rellian questioning things earlier than the rest. Paradise is revealed as an illusion—and until Ben compromises his vision with his kids’ needs, their once unyielding utopia will remain crippled. This results in life lessons you could say the kids teach him. Their unwavering acquiescence often stemming from sarcastic requests for discourse to pitch differing ideas for Ben to shoot down is faltering. An alternative has been presented and the fact Ben cannot protect them all like he believed he could with Leslie’s help comes clearly into focus. We aren’t watching a grieving family striving to lay their matriarch to rest as much as a necessary evolutionary leap forward. It’s time to put their book smart idealism into practice.
Ross travels through rough emotional terrain as silent become vocal and oppressive vindicated in their yearning for safety and health. A transformation is on display from beginning to end wherein Ben’s strengths and failings merge into one. Even though he doesn’t change, his surroundings alter how we look upon him. Mortensen relishes the challenge and delivers one of the year’s finest performances. He embodies the struggle of parenthood—a selflessness catalyzed by selfishness we all know too well. We don’t want to admit we’re wrong, but sometimes our lives depend on that ability to be humbled. Ross takes us places I never thought I’d go and his carefully manufactured world is nothing if not authentic to its motivations. Life is never rewarding without a healthy dose of pain.
 (l to r) Charlie Shotwell stars as Nai, Viggo Mortensen as Ben, Annalise Basso (bg) as Vespyr and Shree Crooks as Zaja in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, a Bleecker Street release.
 (l to r) George MacKay stars as Bo, Charlie Shotwell as Nai, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian and Samantha Isler as Kielyr in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, a Bleecker Street release.
 (l to r) Kathryn Hahn stars as Harper and Steve Zahn as Dave in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, a Bleecker Street release.