If you are reading these words, that means you probably frequent this site, or at least partake in the offerings of the internet with some frequency. And that means you most likely have some degree of affinity (or strong, obsessive hate) for the angry art of the Great American Think Piece. If that’s the case, Captain Fantastic was made for you. Because this movie, starring Viggo Mortensen and a whole bunch of ginger children, is the cinematic equivalent of the think piece. And that is as cool, as exciting, and as exhausting as it sounds.
Captain Fantastic fits nicely into one of my own personal favorite genres: the patriarch gone off the rails. Somewhere between The Tempest and The Poisonwood Bible, Mortensen is a single father whose own brand of love looks— at least from the outside, if not in reality— like some mix of bootcamp director-meets-intellectual life coach. He and his wife (Trin Miller), frustrated with the capitalist confines of Western society, pile their kids into a bus and drive them out into the veritable middle of nowhere, where, by my best guess, they have a bunch more and raise them entirely off the grid. They make the little money they need by selling quality homemade goods, they grow and hunt their food, and their main focus is on education. Not just any education— this is a family who celebrates Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas, and refuses to entertain the (non)word “interesting” as a halfway decent descriptor of literally anything.
We never meet Ben’s (Mortensen) wife, Leslie, since she retreated back to civilization before the start of the film to get treatment for an undiagnosed mental illness. Very early on in the movie (it’s a major driving plot point, so not exactly a spoiler), Leslie commits suicide, and Ben is left on his own to raise the children. This is the point at which the movie asks its audience to take over for it. It never asks us to imagine what he and Leslie were like as partners, if that’s why his military-style trainings seem so tough, or why the children’s spontaneous joyful music seems to pop in out of nowhere. But if this is your movie, those are the bridges you will likely start to build. There is an intriguing (a non-word, I know) story here, but what the audience infers and asks and probes— that’s the real heart of this film.
When Ben and his bus of kids pack up and head across the country to attend Leslie’s funeral, despite being strictly and formidably forbidden by Leslie’s father (Frank Langella), that’s where the heart of the movie kicks in. Because the heart is not in its plot, or its characters, even. It’s in the questions it plants in our minds, as Ben does in his children’s. As you watch these six beautiful redheaded geniuses parrot their father’s socialist language back to him, clearly verbatim, we have to wonder if that is any more dangerous or simple than how most of this country parrots back the lessons we have been taught. Their education is clearly based in critical thinking. Just because that thinking is slanted heavily towards one particular belief, does that make it less valuable? Is the difference between a Trotsky-ist and a Trotsky-ite really very different between Democrat and Republican? (I mean, maybe, but I don’t actually know, unlike the children in this movie, apparently.)
In one powerful, if simplistic scene, Ben pits one of his youngest off against two suburban preteen shitheads, and the result is predictably smug and self-congratulatory for its intended audience. Does this make it less right? Not necessarily. Watching someone— anyone— with even halfway decent reasoning skills face off against a symbol of our terrible, test-based (and test-failing) education system is a sad joy, but watching a child really think is a shockingly beautiful thing. When Ben’s oldest scares away a highway patrolman by faking hardcore Christianity, it forces us to wonder if Ben’s Church of Intelligence is any better, worse, less frightening, or more, than an actual religious-based off-the-grid oddity, which would surely be more easily understood by outsiders. Would it be more or less productive for the individual being educated, and for society? Just because you may have an affinity for logical thought, does that make our preference for the secular justified? Because Ben is the sole or at least major influence on his children, and because the movie is aimed towards like-minded intellectuals, does that make it right? Or best? Or just easiest? Because the movie only gets to contribute to oppositions it sees fit. And again, that doesn’t make it wrong, but it would be a shame to dismiss such difficult questions simply because they are only providing their own counters.
Clearly, what was supposed to be a film review has degraded into a series of questions. Because that’s what this movie is. If you are looking for the absolute perfect liberal hippie socialist first date movie, or even a movie to watch with your kids— or teens, maybe, as it’s rated R for language and brief nudity, though my adult-warped mind can’t remember either of those things being a part of the movie— this is it. Because this movie is nothing but questions. That is its beauty, and that is its failing. As long as you know that going in, it’s going to hit the spot you’re looking to hit.