Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) lives off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. He and his wife decided to raise their six children away from the influences of the world, providing a physical, moral, and intellectual education rarely seen today. Ben and Leslie (Trin Miller) want their kids to be philosopher kings. Intellectual debate happens around the campfire at night after daytime hours filled with rigorous physical training and hunting.
Heading into the real world
Leslie (only seen in flashbacks), diagnosed with bipolar disorder, commits suicide and Ben tells the kids straightforwardly, “Your mother is dead.” Clashing with Leslie’s father, Jack (Frank Langella), Ben and the kids pile into Steve, their modified school bus/RV, and head to Leslie’s funeral in New Mexico. It’s the first time the kids are experiencing the real world and as they interact with their cousins during a stop along the way, some of the kids realize that, with all their book-learning, they are socially inept and awkward in almost every way.
Viggo Mortensen shines as Ben, a committed and devoted father, just doing what he thinks best for his kids. To say this family is unconventional would be a drastic understatement. Harper and Dave (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn), Ben’s sister and brother-in-law, try to tell Ben that as admirable as he and Leslie’s parenting has been, they have failed to prepare their children for life outside the forest. When Jack threaten to sue for custody of the children, claiming that they way they are being raised is child abuse, Ben begins to see that maybe some changes need to be made.
Preparing kids for the real world
For thoughtful Christians, Captain Fantastic can provide much fodder for reflection and conversation. Ben and Leslie believed in something so much that they rejected what was contrary to their beliefs and went off the grid rather than expose their kids to the mainstream culture. Christian parents face great challenges today because the teachings of Jesus and the Church often run counter to the way the secular culture thinks. The law of the land often directly opposes the law of God. By teaching children to live according to the morals and values of Christianity they become counter-cultural. Just like Ben’s kids were thought strange by the people they encountered, living the Christian life can be seen as strange or even rebellious. Radical living doesn’t always make us the most popular people.
Mistakes are part of growth
Captain Fantastic would also make a good discussion movie for Catholic parent groups. Parenting is a tough job and mistakes are part and parcel of raising kids. Through the experience of the road trip, Ben realizes that he can stick to his beliefs while providing the kids with a more balanced life experience. After being idolized by his children, he grows in his own person, being able to admit that maybe the extreme nature of their life was not the best way to go. He doesn’t back down on his convictions but as he moves forth on the parenting journey he insures that his children are “in the world, but not of the world.”
Hop on Steve
The film does sport one instance of full frontal nudity, thus garnering its R rating, but at least it’s consistent with the character. Overall, the film’s heartfelt humor and the compassion it elicits as this family mourns wife and mother, makes Captain Fantastic a compelling ride.