Captain Fantastic (2016)

  • Time: 118 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Matt Ross
  • Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Missi Pyle, Kathryn Hahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler


In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent.


  • Captain Fantastic isn’t deep but it has depth. It seems to be short on plot but strong on character development. It leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next which is what entertainment is all about.
    Once again I have to eat my words. Matt Ross has done a very good job as writer and director. I usually say that one or the other should be a different person simply because being that close to your material can leave a great deal in the creator’s head and not as much on the screen. Not here. Ross has balanced his story well between the emotional and mental elements and the physical ones and they work together very, very well. We see characters grow, change, and learn but, also, stand their ground. There are no good guys or bad guys because we can see where everyone is coming from. As the director Ross is more interested in being able to see the characters and how they react. Steady camera shots and not as many cuts from one person to the next are how he does this. But he’s not afraid to have a bunch of quick cuts to help pick up the pace.
    Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, the father. He is a real father who directs his tribe, preparing them for anything and keeping them free and open. His oldest son and his second boy are stand outs as his kids. George MacKay plays Bo who is trying to live two lives one for each of his parents but when his mother dies he has to keep things from his father while he goes along with what Ben wants. Nicholas Hamilton plays the second son, Rellian, a far more aggressive child but still one of the family. These three form the backbone of this family and they drive most of the emotional life of this film. The entire family including Samantha Isler, Annalisa Basso, Shree Crooks, and Charlie Shotwell are believable as a family from the very beginning which helps make this story ring true.
    There is no villain in this movie but mean is shuffled from one person to another. Frank Langella plays Jack, Ben’s father-in-law. This characters as been against what this family is doing and can be the most demanding person in the family but he loves his grand kids and that tempers his character.
    It is the changes in the characters as life catches up to them that becomes the real pull in this story. The plot is fairly simple but the characterizations are not and this cast handles them expertly.
    I give this movie 5 buses out of 5. It’s not a heavy film by any standards but it is enjoyable and entertaining and the characters have depth and are not two dimensional.

  • Nothing seems to be happening in the last scene of Captain Fantastic. Ben and his last five kids seem to be sitting around the breakfast table. Nobody says, nobody does, very much.
    This is a very quiet conclusion to a film in which we watched the family’s high-stress discussions, high-risk training sessjons, emotional eruptions over the mother’s death, their staged supermarket theft, Ben’s disputes with his sister-in-law and father-in-law and his public explosion at his wife’s funeral, one daughter’s nearly fatal attempt to retrieve a brother, the grandfather’s “adopting” of the kids, their escape to dig up their mother’s corpse and give her the cremation she wanted, including her ashes being flushed down the toilet, and of course Ben shaving off his hippie wild man beard. After all that drama the last scene is a welcome but surprisingly quiet end.
    But look at all that’s happening there. Reunited, the family is continuing the parents’ experiment to live in the wilds, in isolation, to ensure the children’s superior education and self-reliance. In each lesson they advance from rote learning into independent analysis and judgment, sin the daughter’s movement from plot to theme in Lolita. The kids have opted to stay with their father instead of enjoying life on their wealthy grandfather’s estate.
    There are only five kids there now, the oldest having with Ben’s agreement left for the outside world. Instead of going to one of the five top level universities (Harvard, etc.) who have accepted him, he has opted to go out on his own, having randomly chosen Namibia. He’s leaving the family’s retreat but for an open-ended adventure. He may or may not go to college, but for now he’s content to test his forest education lessons on his own in the outside, i.e., real, world.
    Ben has accepted his kids’ need to leave the nest. The other kids have the oldest’s example for themselves to follow when their time comes. If the film begins with one rite of passage, the killing of an animal, it ends with another: the journey. The boy loses his hair to make the trek, as in Ben’s shaving casting off the primitive face-paint and wildness that marked the opening rite. Both men have internalized the strength they had worn as a front.
    Ben’s next oldest son is serving him breakfast. This is the kid who most openly revolted against Ben, blaming his insensitivity and stubbornness for their mother’s death and running away to live with their grandfather. Having seen Ben accept responsibility and complete “the mission” of their mothers’ cremation request, the boy embraces his father again, forgives him his extremism and brings their relationship a new warmth. There is a new mutual respect.
    Ben says they have fifteen minutes before the school bus comes. This is radical. However excellent the kids’ home education has been, Ben has acknowledged their need to experience the outside world, to go to a real school and learn how to deal with other children and their culture. From Adidas to sex, in the trailer camp flirtation scene and the scenes with the sister-in-law’s two brats, we’ve sampled the estrangement these isolated children have to learn to overcome. Book larnin’ ain’t enough.
    But where’s the usual rush for the school bus? Instead the kids are sitting calmly reading and writing. This catches the family’s real virtue — discipline. The family may have compromised their initial objective of living isolated from the outside world, but they are bringing into their new life their old rigour, dedication and self-control.
    And that’s the film’s central value. While we watch Ben’s various lessons for his children we see his most valuable discovery — the dangers of extremism. He learns that his hippie idealism can be as dangerous, destructive and delimiting as his father-in-law’s capitalism. His wife was driven to escape both. She helped the oldest apply for university as his way out. Suicide was hers.
    Ben’s adult treatment of his children’s questions are clearly more enabling and constructive than the shelter his sister-in-law purports to give hers. Their shelter shades into ignorance on the Bill of Rights quiz. Their callousness is exposed when their computer games shock Ben’s children and when the boys give the departing family the raised third finger. Ben’s kids are getting the better education. But at the same time, their isolation will only impede and endanger them when they venture — as they must — into the outside world.
    The growth implicit in Ben’s change and in that last scene brings a new force to their favourite quote from Noam Chomsky, whom they celebrate instead of the fictional elf of Christmas: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”
    Of course, Chomsky himself is an extremist, whose idealism — like the early Ben’s — ignores the exigencies and compromises necessary to survive in government, politics and business. This passage argues against extremism especially in any removal from the world. It’s more mature and constructive than the kids’ favourite exchange:
    Nai: Power to the people!
    Bo: Stick it to the man!
    Slogans do not a fruitful approach to life make. The last scene shows Ben as well as his children accepting the need to realize their values in the real world rather than in retreat from it.

  • “Your mother is dead. Nothing is going to change. We’ll go on living in exactly the same way. We’re a family.” Those words are spoken by Ben (Viggo Mortensen) to his brood of six sons and daughters, aged seven to 18. Despite his matter-of-fact conviction, things will change, they won’t go on living in exactly the same way, and they may or may not be the family he and his wife Leslie intended.

    Raised to be philosopher kings, their children have been nurtured in a back-to-nature, off-the-grid existence in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Trained survivalists – they can hunt for food, scale all manner of terrain, and are familiar and at ease with knives and bows arrows – they are also extraordinarily well-read, able to discuss Marxism, Nabokov and Supreme Court rulings with almost frightening acuity. These children, whatever their age, have always been treated as adults and Ben has never hesitated to tell them the facts of any situation. Thus, the children are aware of their mother’s suicide and their affluent grandfather Jack’s (Frank Langella) forbidding them to attend her funeral.

    Though Ben tries to honour Jack’s wishes – “The powerful control the lives of the powerless,” he tells his children – he also wants to do right by his Leslie, who expressly stated in her will that she wanted to be cremated rather than buried, and his children, who want to bid a proper farewell to their mother. So he and the children set off in a ramshackle school bus and embark on a journey to reclaim his wife’s body. The odyssey exposes the weaknesses of the lifestyle Ben and Leslie have imposed on their children and calls into question whether Ben’s parenting might be a form of enlightened liberation or child abuse.

    The clash between the conventional and radical parental approaches reaches its peak during a dinner with Ben’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), her husband Dave (Steve Zahn), and their two children. Ben’s children are teased for thinking that Nike is a Greek goddess rather than a shoe; Harper’s children are shown up for being talented at video games and little else. Harper and Dave are shocked that Ben would allow his youngest to have a sip of wine (“It’s not crack,” Ben notes) and even more shocked with his not tiptoeing around the circumstances of his wife’s death. There are some things that children shouldn’t be exposed to, they insist.

    Their idyllic upbringing might be threatened by their exposure to the outside world, but writer-director Matt Ross shows that there were already cracks present. Ben’s oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) has secretly applied to and been accepted by a handful of prestigious universities; 12-year-old Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) simmers with rebellious anger. So whilst the mission is ostensibly to pay tribute to Leslie, it’s really more how Ben can keep the family together whilst maintaining the ideals that may be tearing the family apart.

    Ross does mythologise Ben and his anarchist wonderland; some may find this smug, others may be more forgiving since Captain Fantastic proves to be a predominantly enjoyable and thought-provoking film anchored by an excellent lead performance by Mortensen, who treads that fine line between fighting for what he believes in and the extreme fanaticism to those ideals that may ultimately hinder his family.

    There is some treacle that threads into the narrative and actors like Hahn and Langella work a little too hard to inject dimensions into their relatively one-note characters, but the film is confidently directed by Ross, who somehow manages to imbue a potentially ludicrous tale with genuine emotion. Also noteworthy is the gorgeous cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine who, aside from Mortensen, may be the film’s best asset.

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  • “Always tell the truth. Always take the high road. Live each day like it could be your last. Drink it in. Be adventurous, be bold, but savor it. It goes fast.”

    If you had the opportunity to be fully present for your children, could you do it?

    In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent.

    Writer/director Matt Ross was fully focused on parenthood while penning this script. He took questions that he asks himself as a father and translated them into the character of Ben (played by Viggo Mortensen). “My goal was to create a movie that was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving.”via First Showing.

    I’m about seven months late to catching one of the most outstanding and underreported indies of last summer, so pardon the delay. Each year brings constant booms in technology and increased distractions for us millennials and non-millennials. Captain Fantastic delves into a territory I’d be most uncomfortable with – an existence void of the toxic influences of society. The horror! Right?

    Here’s what I learned from Captain Fantastic…

    Is knowing how to set a broken bone or how to treat a severe burn ridiculous? Knowing how to navigate by the stars in total darkness, that’s ridiculous? How to identify edible plants, how to make clothes from animal skins, how to survive in the forest with nothing but a knife?
    That’s ridiculous to you?

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