Directed by: Matt Ross
Written by: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, George MacKay
While there may be books giving helpful pointers, parents will always believe they know what’s best for their kids. No one knows the kids more than they do, which makes them the most qualified person to distinguish what benefits and harms them. At the very least this idea flows through the minds of parents like the one we follow in Captain Fantastic. Definitely a different idea of how to raise kids but one pushing against cultural norms.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) has decided to forgo living in society and raising his six kids out in a forest located in Washington. As part of the way he raises them, the kids train and have read countless books to become incredibly intelligent but socially awkward due to their limited access to the outside world. The little paradise created gets challenged when they must confront the reality of the passing of their mother.
Opening with the daily routine of this unique family lets us know what we’re in for with trying to comprehend this style of parenting. The day begins with athletic training and hunting for the day’s food. As the afternoon arrives, everyone grabs a book and begins their educational component of the day. They better pay close to attention to their reading, as the patriarch of the family may quiz them or ask to present the information to the rest of the family. One man and his six kids but through the daily routine, a gap never ceases to be addressed. A gap previously filled by their mother, who now resides in a hospital and has killed herself. News these children were not prepared for but now pushes them to interact with normal society, as they hope to attend her funeral.
The style of upbringing Ben has chosen for his children includes not holding anything back from them and showing the reality of the world they live in. No moment makes it clearer than when one of the younger kids asks the question about the birds and bees. In a moment where most parents would dance around the subject with flowery language, Ben explains exactly what sexual intercourse entails. The exchange says plenty about the way these characters converse and it raises an interesting question of whether Ben’s method of raising his children should be acceptable. Captain Fantastic spends most of the film battling with this question, but it never presents a truly cogent counterargument, where there are plenty.
As they enter society, moments of awkwardness are bound to happen and it sets up the ideological differences between greater society and the way Ben has chosen to raise the kids. Several of these moments come across in a comedic way and on other occasions in a damning manner. One of the greatest moments comes when Ben and his kids visit his sister Harper portrayed by Kathryn Hahn. She pleads with him to raise the kids with normalcy and send them to school. Ben brings in her sons and asks his youngest to enter the room. Harper’s kids have reached the age to be in high school while Ben’s child cannot be more than 8 years old. When posed the question of defining the Bill of Rights, Harper’s older kids know of it being a government document. Ben’s daughter begins listing each right, its purpose, and how it differentiates this country from others. A moment proving Ben’s methods have pushed his children further than any education system could achieve.
Captain Fantastic comes jam-packed with moments like this one where things simply get awkward, as social norms do not matter to Ben and his family. They have no issues calling out nonsense, which may not be talked about in common society. Breaking through these norms creates some cringe moments but shows the authenticity of this family. The film runs into some issues with perhaps being a bit too sympathetic to Ben and his methods. We’re obviously meant to support him as our protagonist, but the challenges he receives never measure up on an intellectual level, which displays that while his methods may be effective in one sense the imbalance of it may become a detriment to the children. Maybe it’s difficult to come up with an argument because we have such a tremendous actor playing the lead.
Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings films cemented his place as one of my favorite actors, but he continues to prove the value and appreciation he has for the art of cinema. He delivers yet another brilliant performance managing the zaniness of Ben with the emotional vulnerability he must display in trying to hold his family together. The character of Ben could easily fall into the strange territory, where it would make us uncomfortable to follow him and his antics. Mortensen maintains the charisma needed to ensure this character remains endearing to the audience.
Hop on the bus named “Steve” for the cringe and funny Captain Fantastic. Here they do not celebrate Christmas, but instead, opt to recognize Noam Chomsky Day and instead of getting an Xbox, you’ll receive a brand new knife. Even with the radical nature of this parenting style, this film presents opposing ideas of how best to raise kids. It gets a bit messy towards the end but still manages to carry its message throughout the entire narrative. It gives Viggo Mortensen another opportunity to shine as an actor and gave rise to the collection of child actors portraying the kids.