Captain Fantastic, the movie and the man, asks big questions, gives brutal answers, and leaves you with deep thoughts for analysis.
Captain Fantastic, played with vigour by Viggo Mortensen, is a man raising 6 kids in the woods like a pack of wild coyotes. They’re off the grid. They hunt and grow food, read meaty novels by campfire light, and train their bodies strenuously, sometimes dangerously. Each kid has a unique, made-up name so they’ll be the “one and only” in the world. It sounds heavenly or lonely, depending on your perspective. Not all the kids are happy. Not all the parents are happy either, although so far I’ve only mentioned Captain Dad. Mom, as it turns out, is off in a mental health facility, and has been away from the family for several months before they learn she’s committed suicide.
Her death is the catalyst for the family returning to civilization to attend her funeral.
Viggo Mortensen is fantastic, although not always likeable. I’ve seen enough documentaries to know that raising a family off-grid, though idealistic, is not always so great for the kids. In Surf Wise, a doctor raises his kids on the beach, establishing a surf school. He turns out some great athletes, but the kids are otherwise totally unprepared for real life. Without education or even identification, it’s tough for them to rejoin the ‘real world.’ In The Wolfpack, a bunch of kids are kept pent up in a New York apartment. They develop rich inner lives and lots of art, but are totally unaware of what real life entails. In Captain Fantastic, the kids are book-smart but lacking in experience. They don’t know how to interact with the modern world, so unless all of them are prepared to continue subsistence living, and form an incestuous colony, it’s not really a sustainable lifestyle. And the kids are growing resentful.
Captain Fantastic raises a lot of interesting questions about parenting. Should a parent’s decisions always be respected? Are anti-capitalist, anti-establishment values best addressed by dropping out of society? How much freedom is too much freedom for children? And what kind of risk is acceptable? And do children need to sometimes be shielded from difficult or painful concepts, or is complete honesty always the best policy?
This film is quite funny in parts, and quite serious in others. And by serious I mean I cried a small ocean’s worth of salty tears. The kid actors are mercifully good, and Mortensen is generous with them in their shared scenes. Writer-director Matt Ross delivers some pretty satisfying emotional release, and a captivating twinning of joy and sorrow. Unfortunately the script dips a bit in its final acts, letting Captain Fantastic off a little easily, but it’s already a philosophical triumph by that point, a good movie that’s actually about something.