Film Review: Captain Fantastic By Mary Catherine Ballou

captain fantastic Starring Viggo Mortensen, well known for his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and a talented group of emerging young actors and actresses, Captain Fantastic presents viewers with the story of an eccentric father named Ben (Mortensen) who raises his six children in a remote forest of the Pacific Northwest. Ben assumes the role of stay-at-home-dad as a result of his wife’s hospitalization due to a debilitating mental illness. Captain Fantastic divulges the tale of this irreverent outdoorsman and his strong-willed children, who undertake the noble quest to honor their mother and fight for their freedom to live as they choose.


Written and directed by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic takes viewers on a visual and emotional journey, from the magical dew-drenched greenery of the Pacific Northwest, through the highways and byways of strip-mall America, to mansion-filled suburbs of New Mexico. Interspersed throughout are scenes of sparsely populated RV parks and the family’s insider-versus-outsider struggle against mainstream society. The chosen mode of transportation for their “mission,” as the children call it, is a renovated school bus retrofitted to accommodate Ben and his six children.


In the opening scene, the camera zooms over panoramic mountainside views, immediately enveloping viewers with the raw, natural beauty of the land that Ben and his children call home.  As the film portrays their household routines, bringing to mind memories of playing outside as a kid, and intense training sessions, designed to maintain peak physical and mental conditions, viewers become accustomed to the core facets of this family – an idealized, yet isolated, existence governed by the attainment of mental and physical prowess. Ben and his wife, Leslie, decided early on to raise their children in this natural environment infused with Buddhist traditions, sheltered from capitalistic culture.



Throughout Captain Fantastic, three aspects emerge as dominating themes in this film – the aesthetics of the environment, the importance of family and camaraderie, and the transformation of characters as a result of their struggles. Ben and his children have nearly become one with nature, growing vegetables, raising chickens, hunting animals for food, hiking and climbing rigorous terrains, and sleeping under the stars. They have no need for electronic distractions – books, musical instruments, and intellectual dialogue comprise their evening routines. Mimicking their strong physical conditions, the children’s book smarts and eloquence surpass their young ages, as they undergo exacting tests under the watchful eyes of their father.


The family nucleus plays a dominant role in this film, as Ben’s family embraces the notion of strength in numbers. Ben and Leslie taught their children to appreciate nature and the importance of physical and mental strength, embodied in their capacity to survive in the wild. However, within this family, challenges abound.


In addition to the strenuous training sessions that Ben’s children endure, they must also deal with the encroaching challenges of the outside world. Ben attempts to remain immune to mainstream society, strengthened by his mental and physical acuity he submits his children to rigorous, at times shocking, physical challenges. Yet, the greatest challenge he and his children ultimately face is the one posed by his wife’s health issues. Consequently, his family must leave their paradise in the woods and confront society in ways they never imagined. By fighting to preserve his beliefs, Ben’s family structure nearly collapses and he risks losing his children in the process. Still, a transformation occurs in each of the characters. In no way are they static; rather, the family undergoes dynamic changes, but their love and respect for each other is a mainstay of the film.


Captain Fantastic reveals the paradox between the life of Ben’s family and that of mainstream American culture, one that is dominated by modern technological amenities. By demonstrating these two disparate ways of living, the film reminds viewers that one does not have to accept societal norms. Even so, Ben faces no shortage of backlash and difficulty as a result of the stark difference between his beliefs and those of his wife’s family in New Mexico. At certain points, Ben does some things that may cause viewers to question his sanity, and everyone from his father-in-law to his own sons challenge his beliefs and lifestyle choices.


A beautiful and highly recommended film that sends a profound message about what type of path one chooses to tread in life, Captain Fantastic rattles established frames of mind and challenges viewers to contemplate the world in a new light, provoking and inspiring an appreciation for nature and the simple things in life.