I first saw this movie when it came out in 2016 and have yet to see a movie that has challenged me and stuck on my mind as much as this one has. Mark Ross, writer and director, gets his audience to ask many questions on technology, lifestyle and society as they get a glimpse into the Cash family’s world. “Captain Fantastic” makes me critically question the way I live my day-to-day life. Am I putting the right things into my body? Am I allowing technology to dumb me down? Is my average of four and a half hours of screen time on my iPhone too much? As our world becomes increasingly plagued by the negative effects of the media and big businesses continually pull down the middle and lower classes, “Captain Fantastic” and movies like it become more and more relevant, which is why I urge you to see this film.
The film enters on what seems to be a modern-day Eden: a clearing in a Washington mountainscape’s forest filled with lush greenhouses, canned foods and a large, dreamy tent connected to a small log cabin. Six children, ranging from around five years old to their upper teens, quickly get to work. They train, run, exercise and spar with one another and meditate in an open meadow. Father Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) facilitates and encourages them throughout this glimpse into their daily schedule. It seems perfect and makes an audience member want to go off the grid and run away into the mountains. When the sun sets, the family sits around a campfire reading. The 14-year-old reads “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, while the 17-year-old reads “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. It is apparent these kids are geniuses––proficient in multiple languages, cunning and quick––but they are still very much kids––curious, naive and wondrous. This is the calm before the storm. It is magnificently crafted and brings about an aura of homeostasis.
When their mother Leslie (Trin Miller) passes away unexpectedly, the family is met with a tough decision: leave their paradise behind and emerge into the outside world or stay and miss the funeral of their matriarch. The children all give extraordinary performances showcasing the grief that comes not only with the loss of a loved one but the loss of a loved one through suicide. Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) is angry and resentful. Teenage sisters Vespyr (Annalise Basso) and Kielyr (Samantha Isler) take care of the younger children, who don’t quite comprehend what is going on. When Ben gives the news, he does so honestly and kindly, leaving no detail out, saying, “Last night, Mommy killed herself. She finally did it. Your mother is dead.” He treats them as his equals, not his inferiors, even if some, perhaps, are too young to understand the concepts of suicide and their mother’s mental illness. This raises another question: how honest should parents be with their children?
Children Bodevan (George MacKay) and Rellian begin to struggle with their chosen lifestyle––Bodevan longs to go to college, and Rellian wishes to be a normal kid. As they make their journey (on a teal bus named Steve, I might add), Grandfather and father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) threatens to call the police on Ben for raising Leslie’s children unjustly. Jack represents everything Ben isn’t. He lives in a large New Mexico mansion, is a devout Christian and believes the traditional American way is the only acceptable way. As the family begins to encounter America’s corrupt capitalism first-hand, it becomes unclear as to whether Ben is the hippie hero or the dictator villain of the story.
Mortensen gives a career-defining performance throughout this transformative film. He showcases the complexities of a father wanting desperately to be truthful to his children and give them all the tools they need to truly become the philosopher kings (ala Plato’s “Republic”) that his wife dreamed of. He digs deep inside Ben to show that while he is fearless and strong in his beliefs, he is still willing to admit when he’s made a possibly terrible mistake. While it would be easy to label Jack as the film’s antagonist due to Langella’s strict and confrontational demeanor, that would be skipping over the moral dilemma the film begs the audience: How much is too much? Mortensen captures Ben’s deep desire to be the best father he can, while keeping his arrogant willpower to push for his radical lifestyle.
Ross’ brilliant writing captures the core of the human spirit through and through. While this film can act as wish fulfillment for anyone who’s ever longed to run away and escape the pressures of modern life, it pushes us to think more carefully of what we believe, consume and follow. Neither extreme is an adequate solution, and Ross beautifully examines that. Are we allowing the media to control us? Are we properly taking care of ourselves intellectually, physically and emotionally? What is the proper or superior way to raise a family? Ross doesn’t give us a clear answer, either. That is perhaps what is so compelling about this raw, emotional piece because life doesn’t always give us a clear or easy path. We must figure things out on our own.
The movie transitions to the girls, Vespyr and Kielyr, running through lush greenery with the sun shining on them. The audience is reminded of that wondrous wish fulfillment the film’s first act gave us. However this time, they’re running through a garden in the front yard of a modern-day farmhouse. Steve the bus has been refashioned into a chicken coup. Bodevan has left on a journey to discover the world for himself. The kids sit at the table eating breakfast and prepare for school. They have finally found their middle ground: their perfect in-between. The screen fades to black after a long, calming moment of silence where the family simply sits and enjoys one another’s company.
Watch this film if you can. I could do an entire dissertation analyzing everything that goes on here. As I’ve returned to this movie more and more since starting college, I keep noticing new messages and lessons to take away from it. Primarily, it makes me take a hard, unbiased look at my life and what I want it to be. It makes me think harder about where my middle ground is between today’s incessant capitalistic, technologically-addictive grip and Ben Cash’s hippie-esque paradise. I use this film not as a depressing wake up call, but instead as a call to evaluate and lead with action. We are in control of our own realities. We have the power to become philosopher kings, or whatever else we wish to be, so long as we stay aware and instigate progress. In the words of humanitarian and activist Noam Chomsky, “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.”