This is a truth we hold to be self-evident: being a “good” parent in the current age is frequently characterized by placation, coddling and a steady diet of cud for one’s children to mindlessly feed on. Hence, Matt Ross’ fourth feature as a writer-director, Captain Fantastic, showcases the scrutiny that recently widowed Ben (Viggo Mortensen) must endure for choosing to raise his children in a self-reliant, autodidactic manner in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. His wife Leslie’s (Trin Miller) absence from their lives as a result of bipolar disorder leaves his purposely uniquely named six children, Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vesper (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), utterly bereft — in a state of near freefall that prompts the older kids to question Ben’s parenting methods.
With the dramatic introduction to the narrative seeing Bodevan kill his first deer and eat its innards, Ben declares that his son has transcended from a boy into a man, giving us a sense of just how viscerally real the children’s upbringing is. The simple, yet intellectually stimulating existence Ben creates for them is punctuated by reading such “light-hearted” classics as Middlemarch and Guns and Ammunition around a fire they’ve all created together, as well as each child displaying mastery in an instrument that allows them to form an impromptu band whenever they feel like it.
Beating to the rhythm of his own drum in the wake of their mother’s departure to seek psychiatric care, however, is Rellian, who begins his subtle rebellion against Ben even before he learns that Leslie has killed herself by slitting her wrists. With the news delivered over the phone to Ben by his sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), he decides — after a heavy-duty dousing by a waterfall — to calmly inform his brood of the news. Rellian has the most viscerally Oedipal reaction, grabbing a knife and wielding it as though to stab Ben. His contempt for his patriarch later manifests in another unexpected betrayal, spurred by the suppressed anger of witnessing an exchange between Leslie and Ben before she left their idyllic setup to get treatment for her manic moods.
Upon reading Leslie’s Last Will, Ben assumes he will be able to carry out her wishes to be cremated and put back into nature, per her Buddhist beliefs. Leslie’s wealthy and influential father, Jack (Frank Langella, who has remained aesthetically the same since his appearance in 1993’s Body of Evidence), has different ideas involving a traditional Christian burial. When the children find out their grandfather will have Ben arrested if he shows up to the funeral in New Mexico, their sadness is augmented tenfold for being essentially forbidden from getting one final goodbye.
But Ben, wearing a Jesse Jackson t-shirt, and anti-establishment freethinker that he is, ultimately succumbs to the melancholy faces of his children in their magic school bus-looking vehicle by turning it in the direction of the Southwest. They will attend their mother’s funeral. Though all of the children (apart from Rellian) clearly revere their father, Bodevan’s clandestine application and acceptance into every major Ivy League university indicates his latent desire to counteract some of the key tenets Ben has instilled within them — a desire driven by his realization that the interactions he has with most people in “civilization” (especially, and most importantly, women) are awkward in the extreme, thanks to his hyper-intellectualism.
It isn’t until Bodevan has mild success with Claire (Erin Moriarty), a fellow teenager he encounters at a mobile home park the family stops at along the way, that his unruliness is diverted into curiosity. Obviously, he makes it a dead giveaway that he’s been sheltered in an unconventional sense when, after a long evening spent talking with and getting to know Claire, she tries to take him back to her “place”, only to get caught running past Claire’s trailer by her mother, Ellen (Missi Pyle). Assuming the only natural protocol for a young man potentially about to have sex with a woman — and to deflect punishment — is to ask for her hand in marriage, he tells Ellen how highly he thinks of Claire, and that he would be honored to make her his wife.
It’s occasions such as these, highlighting how the book smartness of Ben’s children is both their blessing and their curse when it comes to jiving with others outside the family, that bring a poignant cachet to the notion that what humanity truly places importance on is one’s ability to ingratiate socially — not how bright or gifted a person is. Relatedly, there is an Aesop fable that tells the tale of the eagle and the jackdaw, in which the latter sees an eagle swoop down to snatch up a lamb in its talons. Wanting to emulate its strength, the jackdaw attempts the same maneuver with a ram, only to get its claws tangled in the ram’s wool. When the shepherd sees this, he decides to capture the eagle and clip its wings so that it can be the same (that is, “lowered”) as the jackdaw, leaving the former with no desire to feel competition or jealousy over the eagle being blatantly superior.
As Ben’s children enter the “real world”, interacting with people throughout the journey to their mother’s funeral, the phenomenon described in the abovementioned fable gradually starts to affect them. This becomes especially pronounced when the kids arrive at their aunt Harper’s house and try to engage with their slack-jawed cousins, who mock them for thinking Nike is merely the Greek goddess of victory, not the very embodiment of what Ben would deem corporate greed in the form of popular sneakers.
Ben, so consumed with the new “mission” of carrying out Leslie’s Last Will, is oblivious to the casual mutiny that’s taking place right in front of his eyes as his kids begin to realize how unwelcome they are outside of the forest. The concern for his children isn’t just coming from them, but also from Harper, who sees that they’re only going to feel more out of place if they continue living in an isolated environment.
Upon re-entering the “mainland”, as it were, Ben satirically narrates some of the more grotesque sights linked to modern humanity (K-Mart included) by remarking on how, more than thinking, Americans love shopping, and thus, “channeling” all of their minds’ energy on consumerism instead of edification. This sentiment will be echoed later on, when Harper’s husband, Dave (Steve Zahn, who still occasionally crops up in film), asks, “How do you still have money?” Ben responds, “I only buy what I need.” This concept, among every other espoused by Ben, is anathema to every outsider they encounter — his and his children’s IQ and reasoning abilities is so enraging that it forces the drones around them to be reminded of what partaking of non-regurgitated thought was once like.
Most angered of all, of course, is Jack, when Ben finally does show up at the funeral wearing a ’70s era suit with the kids in tow. The journey they’ve taken to get there is one marked by stealing food from the grocery store to the soundtrack of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and one of reconciliation and self-discovery, almost Darjeeling Limited-esque in motif and execution.
Ben is so fixated on not allowing Leslie’s burial to take place, but to honor her wishes for cremation, instead, that he forgets who he is doing this all for in the first place: the kids. Bodevan’s brief romantic trailer park interlude with Claire, and later his confession to Ben that he has applied to college, is the first wake up call to the Ben that the proverbial spell he’s held over his children for so long is finally breaking. He begins to consider that maybe, just maybe, his way of raising his family — a way that promotes true excellence — is a detriment to their ability to succeed in a society that has prided itself on mediocrity since the first moment public schools decided to reward students merely for attendance.
The grim reality of Ben having to pull back and allow his kids the chance to be as lackluster as they want to be in order to function in American society is that this is objectively what most consider “good” parenting, because it’s better to rear an “average”, unquestioning child than a razor sharp-minded “freak”. Alas, fitting in is often the motivation for many an ill-advised action.