By Ali Bush ‘19
Picture a family living in the forest of Oregon, living off the land, playing folk music, and discussing Rousseau: “Captain Fantastic” (2016) appears to be a recipe for a cliché-ridden disaster, but director Matt Ross cleverly manages to tell this family’s unique story with sincerity and grace. The film centers around nonconformist parents of six, Ben (Viggo Mortenson) and Leslie (Trin Miller) who decide to raise their children deep in the Oregon forest, far from any cell tower, Walmart, or traces of mainstream, capitalist America. The parents spend their lives dedicated to their children’s education, filling their days with rigorous physical trading, hours of reading, and high level intellectual discussions about obscure humanitarians. It may seem like a utopia for a fed-up anarchist, but when the children’s mother dies, the clan is forced to interact with the totally unfamiliar, capitalist society around them. As the rag-tag group of father and children fight perform the burial ceremonies for which their mother requested, they are met with opposition from their family in the “real” world, and faced with the weighty realization that there are major downfalls to living in their own pseudo-Walden.
The movie aptly captures the complex relationship of this overly-optimistic father, Ben, and his loyal band of children. While at times Ben gains our trust as a caring, open-minded father, at other times, such as when he teaches his gang of misfits how to plan and execute a shoplifting heist at a local grocery store, we become more doubtful of his parenting methods. Mortenson certainly steals the show, providing a moving performance that balances the roles of wise patriarch and vulnerable, unsure parent. The film leaves one pondering the myriad of complexities that come with raising children. One of the most striking aspects of the film is how Ben speaks to his children without censorship or condescension. When his pre-pubescent son asks about sexual intercourse, Ben gives one of the frankest, yet most appropriate answers I’ve heard, but one that may make some uncomfortable. This conversation reminded me of my own frustratingly non-existent sexual education, and the need to educate children honestly about certain subjects, rather than letting topics such as sex, loss, and rejection loom ominously in a child’s future. Ben’s unusual method of parenting suggests that answering children’s questions with honesty and without any watering down, gives children time to critically ponder these topics rather than fear them, leaving them more ready to face these issues when they arise.
Likewise, the movie particularly brings to light the quality of public education in America, and makes the point that alternative educational methods have their value when compared to a standardized, impersonal educational system. Ben proves the effectiveness his unusual homeschooling methods in a scene in which his 6-year-old daughter flawlessly recites the Bill of Rights and gives her own opinion on gun law, as her older, public-school-educated cousins glaze over with confusion. The film suggests that there are still setbacks to Ben’s alternative system of homeschooling. While the children’s isolated woodland classroom provides them with self-dependence and critical thinking skills, it also gives off serious cult vibes and leaves the children raw and unprepared for communicating with new people. It becomes clear that Ben is out of touch with the risk involved in his survival-centric way of raising his children, such as giving his a six-year-old son a disturbingly large knife. The film genuinely presents both the pros and cons of their education, and asks the weighty question of how to raise children authentically in a world of conformity and consumerism.
Although the end of the film becomes somewhat unrealistic and a bit overly-sentimental, Mortenson’s ability to balance the roles of the enraged anarchist and concerned father make it worthwhile. Similarly, the talent from all the young actors is not to go unnoticed, whose characters seem to emanate an endless amount of hope. Ending with a quirky, acoustic rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” you can’t help but feel but uplifted. With just the right balance of angst, tragedy, and hope, “Captain Fantastic,” a film about a dad doing his best, may be the best superhero movie of the summer.