What would life be like if we followed through on the desire of just packing up and living in the woods? Captain Fantastic, directed by Matt Ross asks this question as well as what would happen if you then raised a family. Viggo Mortensen plays Ben the father and current head of the family who years ago, along with his wife, uprooted his life to live a self-sustainable existence deep in the forests of the American North West. Once his wife was taken ill and had to seek medical aid in the city, Ben was left to raise their children in almost total isolation from society. Here he teaches his family, not only hunting and survival techniques but also history, science, math and philosophy.
When Ben’s wife dies and the family decide to re enter mainstream society to attend her funeral, he and his children are forced to question their lifestyle and upbringing and how it restricts them from connecting with the rest of their family and civilization in general. Ross makes a lot of great choices in Captain Fantastic. The film takes a lot of time to introduce us to the families’ secluded world at the outset and presents it as an idyllic way of life that many of us wish we had the courage to pursue. The music swells as we see their makeshift home in the forest. The camera lovingly dances between close-ups of picture frames and homemade toys. Almost home video style handheld coverage reveals the children cooking, washing and gardening as a part of a symbiotic relationship with the environment around them.
All of this seduces the viewer and wins us over to Ben’s decision to provide this life for his children. Once the family hit the road and it is revealed they can’t relate to other kids and other families it becomes all the more heartbreaking and confronting for the viewer because we are having to question our own ideas of how this family lives. The main conflict resides within Ben as he struggles with his parenting choices. In many ways he seems like the Mr. Fantastic of the title but in making the decisions he has for his family he has crippled his children socially. The ultimate question of the film is where does the middle ground lie between living a life of philosophical integrity and being a functioning member of a society that may not agree with your interpretation of what that means.
One great strength of the film is that it presents each of its characters and their points of view as equally justified. This is also aided by great performances from Mortensen, Frank Langella, Anne Dowd, George MacKay, Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn. The end of the film is somewhat disappointing as Ross does so well setting up and seeing through these moral dilemmas only to find a seemingly simplistic resolution that seems to sacrifice the complexity of the issue in favor of a feel good ending. This however, is by no means a deal breaker and Captain Fantastic is a great meditation on philosophy, morality and family.