In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben Cash raises his six children off the grid by himself after his wife, Leslie, was hospitalized for bipolar disorder. Ben and Leslie became disillusioned with capitalism and American life and chose to instill survivalist skills and philosophy in their children. Ben, though a loving father, is also extremely strict with the children maintaining physical exercise and education by reading extensive texts ranging from foreign language to quantum mechanics. The children, except for teen son Rellian, are accepting of this lifestyle.
The children wonder when their mother will return from hospital, but Ben is evasive. While Ben and eldest child Bodevan make a routine trip into town, Bodevan finds multiple college acceptance letters in the mail, but keeps this information private. Ben learns on a call to his sister Harper that Leslie committed suicide the previous night. Ben breaks the news to his family, who react with shock and grief. Ben calls his estranged father-in-law Jack to discuss Leslie’s wish for a cremation. Jack replies that Leslie will be buried, and Ben is not welcome at the funeral. Ben refuses to travel to the funeral, despite the children’s wishes to go, out of fear of being arrested. Though Rellian breaks his hand while rock climbing, Ben refuses to offer aid and instead orders his son to keep climbing.
Seeing how his children are grieving, Ben takes them on a road trip to crash the funeral, where they get their first glimpses of city life. They confront an inquisitive police officer, leave without ordering at a local diner due to Ben’s disgust with the menu, and steal food from a supermarket while Ben fakes a heart attack. Ben, considering Christmas to be nonsense, instead celebrates Noam Chomsky day, giving the children various weapons as gifts.
The family eventually arrives at Harper’s house and shares a dinner with her family. Tensions explode at dinner over clashing ideas about whether Ben’s children should have been given the details of their mother’s death (by suicide); Harper storms out in tears. The following morning, Harper and her husband argue that Ben’s children should be in school to learn real things but Ben counters by demonstrating that her sons lack basic understanding of the Bill of Rights. The family continues on to a caravan park, where Bodevan has his first interaction with a girl his own age. Although Bodevan lacks social skills, the two share a kiss, and Bodevan quickly proposes marriage. She laughs it off, leaving Bodevan dejected.
The family arrives late for Leslie’s funeral, in flamboyant outfits. Ben interrupts the service, reading from Leslie’s will, indicating her wish for a musical celebration and cremation followed by her ashes being flushed down a toilet. Jack has Ben forcefully removed. Jack and his wife meet some of their grandchildren for the first time, and Ben is warned to stay away from the burial. Ben attempts to crash the graveside service, but relents after his children talk him out of it.
Rellian later tells Bodevan that he often overheard their parents arguing over their lifestyle choice, and Ben refused to change course even after Leslie began having mental health problems. Bodevan confronts his father with the college acceptance letters. Ben is proud, but betrayed by Bodevan’s rejection of the independent lifestyle that he has tried to teach. Their debate is cut short by news that Rellian has fled to Jack’s mansion. Rellian tells his father that he wishes to live with his grandparents. Jack tells Ben that he and his wife will seek custody of Ben’s children.
In an attempt by Ben and his other children to ‘rescue’ Rellian, daughter Vespyr is injured after falling from the roof of Jack’s house. She is rushed to hospital, where a doctor explains that she’ll suffer no long term disability but was incredibly lucky and could easily have been paralyzed or killed. Acknowledging the danger that he places his children in, Ben has the family stay with Jack. The children bond with their grandparents, and Ben comes to understand Jack. Ben departs, supposedly alone on his empty bus, but finds the children had stowed away, and they all reconcile.
The children tell Ben that they still wish to honor Leslie’s funeral wishes. Ben is convinced when Rellian quotes Chomsky. That night, they dig up Leslie’s body and travel to a nearby beach. Ben pays his last respects and they serenade their mother’s memory by singing and playing “Sweet Child o’ Mine”. At the airport, Leslie’s ashes are flushed down a toilet, and the family sees Bodevan off on a flight where he may find his place in the world.
Later, the rest of the family are shown living on a farm. Although they adhere to Ben’s education and philosophy of life, the children are also attending school, and are content.
Electric City announced in February 2014 that Viggo Mortensen had been cast as the idealistic father in the planned flim. Matt Ross would direct, from a screenplay he wrote, with Lynette Howell and Jamie Patricof producing. In June 2014, it was announced that George MacKay, Annalise Basso, Samantha Isler, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and newcomer Charlie Shotwell had also been cast. It was also announced that Shivani Rawat and Nimitt Mankad’s ShivHans Pictures would finance the film, with Monica Levinson executive producing. In July 2014, Frank Langella joined the cast. In August 2014, it was announced that Steve Zahn, Kathryn Hahn, Missi Pyle and Erin Moriarty had been cast.
Principal photography on the film commenced in July 2014, in Western Washington.
“Captain Fantastic,” written and directed by “Silicon Valley”‘s Matt Ross, presents a family who have retreated from the world into the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. They are off the grid. They hunt for food. They are self-reliant. It’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” or that 1970s series of films about “The Wilderness Family.” Fresh air. No consumerism. No materialism. Okay, sounds fine, if a little unsustainable. Such utopias need a strong leader, and father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is that. He treats his five kids as though they are military recruits (as well as PhD candidates). Because they are children, and because they are cut off from other influences, they parrot back to him his words, they share his worldview without question. It’s Family as Cult. All of this is extremely intriguing, calling to mind films like “The Mosquito Coast,” or “Running on Empty,” which had similar cloistered family atmospheres, and charismatic controlling (albeit well-meaning) fathers. But “Captain Fantastic” treats the situation (and Ben) so uncritically and so sympathetically that there is a total disconnect between what is actually onscreen and what Ross thinks is onscreen.
When the film opens, the mother of this little clan (Trin Miller’s Leslie) has been hospitalized for bipolar disorder, leaving Dad as “captain” of the ship. He puts the kids through fight training, boot camp drills and ushers his oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) into manhood through the ritual of stalking and killing a deer solo. At night they sit around a campfire, the kids reading books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Middlemarch and Dostoevsky. They argue about capitalism and exploited classes, sounding like little robots, Bodevan informing his dad at one point, “I’m not a Trotsky-ist anymore. I’m a Maoist.” (This is a family where “Trotsky-ist” is descriptive and “Trotsky-ite” is an insult. It’s like it’s 1929 in the Soviet Union.) The kids miss their mother and want to know when she’s coming back. When Ben gets word that Leslie has killed herself, he informs the kids in blunt plain language.
Leslie’s parents blame Ben for everything and forbid him from coming to the funeral. Ben, who has set up his whole life so that he never has to answer to anyone, piles the kids into their gigantic school bus, and heads off to crash the funeral and make sure Leslie gets the Buddhist cremation ceremony she always wanted. It’s a long road trip. They pull off occasionally, once to steal supplies from a grocery store (they’ve run such drills before), and once for an annual family ritual: the celebration of Noam Chomsky Day. What will happen one day if one of the kids decides Noam Chomsky is full of it? Will that even be allowed? The irony here, and it is a terrible one, is that Ben is raising his kids to question the status quo, to not swallow any information wholesale, and yet he creates an environment where questioning his authority is impossible.
The family stops and stays the night with family (Kathryn Hahn’s Harper, Steve Zahn’s Dave and their two kids), and the culture clash is extreme. Ben’s kids don’t know anything about pop culture. To win the argument that his kids have been educated just fine without going to school, Ben forces his six-year-old to give an impromptu treatise on the Bill of Rights, the purpose of which is to shame the public-school cousins who have no idea about anything. The child rattling off facts about the Bill of Rights is supposed to be adorable and comedic as well as a “high five” moment for the family. I guess. It looked more like Ben was being a sanctimonious bully towards those who welcomed him into their home.
“Captain Fantastic” does acknowledge some of the issues in a character like Ben: Bodevan has to apply to college behind his dad’s back, and Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) rebels openly against his father’s control. Rellian makes a choice at one point that feels like a victory and then he backtracks, apologizing to his father for disobedience. To his apology, Ben does not say, “I’m sorry too.” He says, “I love you.” It’s supposed to be touching. It’s not. Rellian is ten years old. He has nothing to apologize for. That’s the issue with “Captain Fantastic” in a nutshell.
“Captain Fantastic” is so soft on Ben that when Frank Langella shows up as Leslie’s father, and expresses outrage at the way Ben raises the children, he sounds like the voice of reason. And yet the film treats Langella as though he’s the villain, a self-satisfied Fat Cat, emblematic of everything Ben and his wife (and their drone-children) hate. (“Look at the unethical use of space!” chirps one of Ben’s daughters, looking at their grandfather’s backyard.)
The kids (Hamilton, MacKay, Charlie Shotwell, Shree Crooks, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso) are all excellent, and create a believable family unit. Mortensen gives Ben’s authoritarian bent shadings of softness, openness, especially when he encourages his kids to think their thoughts through (forcing his daughter to go deeper in her literary analysis of Lolita is a nice little scene). Mortensen is a tremendously powerful actor, and he can do more in a closeup than most actors can with their whole bodies. It’s the attitude of the film that’s the problem.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t invent the idea of getting back to nature as the ultimate Good. It’s been with human beings since Adam and Eve frolicked in the garden. The thinking goes: If human beings could “get back to nature,” then maybe all the problems in the world could be eradicated. But there’s an error in that kind of thinking. Citizens of poverty-struck countries already live in a “natural” state, with no running water, subsistence agriculture, no modern medicine. They could probably tell the hippies a thing or two about how “nature” in its raw state is no great shakes, and a warm bed and a hot bath are nothing to sneeze at. But the mindset persists and it crosses ideological lines. There are the Amish and the Mennonites. There are the “survivalists,” holed up in compounds with their arsenals and conspiracy theories. There are the radical off-shoots of Christianity favoring homeschooling, and prioritizing being “in but not of” the world. Jonestown is the most dangerous example of what a retreat from the world can result in, but there are others with equally devastating consequences. Society isn’t the problem. Man is the problem. A utopia can only work if it’s made up of one person. The second another person shows up, you’re going to have problems.
If Ben were a “Jesus Camp” type, steeped in a political brand of Christianity, preparing his kids for apocalyptic Rapture, would his behavior be presented as adorably eccentric as it is here? Would a film present a survivalist-dad holed up with his kids and his weaponry as uncritically? It’s the same mindset, just different ideologies. Just because Ben is a lefty doesn’t mean he’s not a jerk. “Captain Fantastic” could have used a lot more skepticism.
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