‘Captain Fantastic’: A Nuanced Exploration of Discourse in America

Captain Fantastic is a heart-warming film that forces the viewer to consider the faults of modern society and the benefits to living an alternative lifestyle.  Written and directed by Matt Ross, the film was a hit at Sundance this year, and rightly so.  While it is frequently damning to American culture, it also has a lot to say about the value of compromise, discourse, and self-reflection.  Most impressively, it is a movie that revels in the existence of the morally gray, a trait that is rare for a two-hour long feature film.  Captain Fantastic really impressed me, and it’s a film that is best discussed from start to finish, so full [spoilers] ahead.


The film introduces us to Ben (Viggo Mortesen) and his family of six children who live in a Pacific Northwest utopia of their own making. Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) have home-schooled their children to be brilliant, and raised them to be in peak physical condition and experts in the art of survival. However, after the bipolar Leslie commits suicide, and is going to be buried against her will, Ben and the kids set out on a mission to civilization to honor her final wishes.  As fish out of water, the children must experience a world that they’ve only read about in books, and endure many of the prejudices that society has against them.

To me, this movie is primarily about the need for discourse and open-mindedness. Throughout the film, our heroes meet a variety of characters who have always known the world one way, and believe that their way is the “right” way. The film is frequently unkind to Americans, portraying them as closed-minded, zealous, and judgmental of anything out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, Ben’s children consistently show themselves to be exceptional as a result of their unique upbringing, proving that growing up without the burden of society has major advantages. They excel at practically every task they set their mind to.


This is most pronounced when Ben and his children visit his sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn). Harper’s family is mostly accepting of the Ben’s way of life on the surface, but are clearly uncomfortable and constantly giving sideways glances anytime any of the children act out of the ordinary. Eventually this leads to a confrontation between Ben and his sister about whether it’s morally correct for him to be home-schooling his children in the wilderness. Ben counters by bring out his adolescent daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks), and quizzing her about the U.S. constitution. Zaja passes the quiz with flying colors, while Harper’s (much older) children can barely stutter even the vaguest of answers about American government.

For the first two acts of the movie, we are meant to believe the utopian way of life is a brilliant alternative to the typical American upbringing. There are a few moments of doubt (the children lack some social skills, and are occasionally shoplifting or being placed in danger), but the sheer physical and mental superiority of the children compared to their peers are enough to keep the audience on Ben’s side.  In the first half, the film appears to simply be an indictment on American culture and the education system: a polarizing message, but an interesting one. Not every viewer would agree with the thesis, but it would make some decent points provided that he or she already agrees with the premise.


Where the movie goes from good to great, however, is when it flips its earlier message on its head. When one of the sons, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), decides to leave the family and live with his grandfather, the rest of the family organizes a “rescue mission” to bring him back into the fold.  The middle daughter, Vespyr (Annalise Basso), climbs onto the roof of the house to go through an upper-story window. All goes as planned, until suddenly some of the roof tiles break, and she comes crashing down into a parked car in the driveway. She is seriously injured, and Ben rushes her to a hospital.  He learns that she’s going to be okay, but that she came very close to paralysis or death.

For the first time, the audience’s eyes are opened to just how fallible Ben’s point of view is. Suddenly we start considering instead the grandfather’s point of view, and realizing just how dangerous this lifestyle is and how psychologically damaging the lack of socialization can be in the long term. Even Ben is forced to consider the consequences, and for the first time he truly understands the other side of the story. In the end, he decides to compromise, bringing the children into society while also home-schooling and training them on the side.  Yes, the American system is flawed and there is certainly a better way. However, the film argues that taking a child’s life completely into one’s own hands can be just as, if not more, dangerous in the long term.


Captain Fantastic is largely about the rights of parents when it comes to raising children. It champions the idea that parents should have the ability to choose to raise their children in whatever way they see is best, while simultaneously condemning decisions that cross a hypothetical line as dangerous and irresponsible. While the politics of this film are extremely liberal, it is easy to draw parallels between Ben’s decisions and those of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. The film argues that there comes a point at which parental decisions may put children at grave risk, and that is when society has the right to intervene.

Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic is an extremely open-minded film, and one that I hope gets a huge audience. It explores its central premise from a variety of angles, and while it explores the promise behind alternative education and lifestyle, it also goes out of its way to present the dangers and allow the viewer to decide for herself. It also illustrates the conflict of parental control from a well-rounded vantage point and isn’t afraid to present a morally gray perspective rather than portraying issues as black and white. It takes a bold film to take a mixed stance on complicated issues, let alone execute its argument at the high level of Captain Fantastic.



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