Captain Fantastic movie scene of Viggo Mortensen character with family

Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic is well-acted and entertaining, but its success rests largely on viewer response to the polarising lead character. Blinkered leftist alternative types will love him and the film; others may be less enthused.

Review: (rolanstein)
What to make of Captain Fantastic?

Neo-hippy drivel shamelessly targeting a leftist “alternative” demographic? A thought-provoking rumination on extreme helicopter parenting? A disturbing depiction of a tyrannical narcissist bringing up his children in his own image? A portrait of a subversive and courageous idealist seeking to keep his children free from the shackles and oppressive influences of a bullshit society he doesn’t believe in? A heart-warming tale of an odd-ball family that sticks together through thick and thin?

How about all of the above? Yeah, to say I’m ambivalent about this film is an understatement.

The lead character, 21st century hippy Ben (Viggo Mortensen), is problematic, and the main reason for my mixed response. Not to suggest that Mortensen has anything to answer for. He’s as charismatic as always. Indeed, many viewers are going to be seduced by his too-kool-for-skool Ben character and the leftist idealism that drives him.

Ben and his wife Leslie have taken the tree-change concept and off-grid living to extremes, bringing their kids up in the wilderness of Washington State, home-schooled and completely isolated from the greater community. We never meet Leslie (except in Ben’s dreams). She’s been hospitalised with mental problems – perhaps hubby and his utopia have gotten a bit much for her.

Ben is a self-styled shaman leading and guiding his little tribe of white Injuns in all aspects of life in their wilderness bubble. The children, ranging in age from around 5 to early adulthood, have finely honed bush survival skills, and are supremely physically fit. They stalk and hunt wild animals armed only with knives, grow vegetables, and by night sit around the fire reading fine literature, discussing philosophy and playing guitars. They know the American Constitution by heart. They celebrate Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas (rolling your eyes yet?).

It’s all a bit alternative-by-numbers. At one point, with all the facile spite of a leftist meme, Ben refers to Jesus as a “fictitious magical elf” (yawn). Then, like a ventriloquist dummy, one of the young kids spouts off Daddy’s instructions that “we don’t make fun of any religions, except Christianity.” Not quite consistent with Ben’s advocacy of free-thinking, philosophy and fine literature, you’d think. Religion aside, the Bible is fundamental to Western literature and art. But hey, who cares about trifles like character credibility when there’s the box office to consider, and that large-target leftist viewer demographic to pander to, bless their predictable little hearts all beatin’ as one.

When news arrives of Leslie’s suicide, Ben gathers up his troupe and they hit the road in their neglected family bus (named “Steve”) to rescue her corpse from a church funeral her parents have arranged in New Mexico. Leslie was a Buddhist (naturally), and Ben is adamant that her corpse should be disposed of in a manner in keeping with her beliefs – that is, burnt on a pyre with her children singing her off (from what variation of Buddhism does that tradition derive?). Her parents have forbidden him to attend the funeral, to which he responds with an emphatic “Fuck that!” His brood cheers like the programmed automatons they are.

However, with every real world interaction Ben’s god-like status is undermined. Oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) realises that his isolated upbringing has ill-prepared him for the outside world when he makes a fool of himself in his first flirting encounter. Younger son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), alone among his siblings in resisting Ben’s brainwashing and openly challenging him, blames him for Leslie’s death. The girls remain blindly loyal, but the cake has begun to crumble, and it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.

If Ben’s kids are starting to have doubts, so are we, the viewers. The more he and his family interact with the greater community, the more his counter-culture hero mantle slips, exposing the intolerably smug, controlling bighead lurking beneath. Finally, even Ben begins to doubt himself and his parenting.

While it’s a relief that writer/director Matt Ross deflates his hero and confronts him with a few home truths, there’s a sense that he does so a little begrudgingly. It’s almost as if Ross himself is seduced by his lead character. This may go some way towards explaining why the film veers off into sentimentality and happyendingsville. Then again, realism isn’t an integral part of its weave.

Your response to Captain Fantastic will largely depend on your perception of Ben. Blinkered leftist alternative types will love him and the film; others may be less enthused. Regardless, it is well-acted, an absorbing watch and for the most part a fun ride, and is certain to inspire much discussion on parenting. It certainly raises plenty of questions on the topic, but answers are a little less forthcoming.

Movie website:

Captain Fantastic features: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella
Writer/Director: Matt Ross

Australian release date: 8 Sept 2016 (@ Luna Leederville and Luna On SX and Event Cinemas in Perth)

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9 thoughts on “Captain Fantastic”

  1. Well! I’m not sure I agree that what you think of Ben reveals anything whatsoever about your political leanings; this tried-and-true lefty thought he was an absolute dickhead.

    I liked the premise of the film but thought it played out with no subtlety. Logically anyone who goes off-grid like that is an extremist, but this was really ridiculous and incredible. I thought they jumped the shark early (in the mountain-climbing scene) and stayed way out to sea for the rest of the film. The most annoying thing was that after Ben had been forced to acknowledge that he may not after all have been right about everything all the time, he made the STUPIDEST decision about his and the children’s future. And even after that, his solution to the next problem was another stupidly extreme course of action.
    What could have served to validly critique first world cultural values and practices instead lost itself in risible exaggeration.

    And you know my bugbear about people in films driving and not keeping their eyes on the road. Sheesh. Ben did it all the time in the bus. He ought to have driven them all to an early grave and I almost wish he had.

  2. I’m not referring to “lefties” per se, Karen. I’m also left, but I try to consider all angles, and I will not automatically support everything “left.” I’m referring to BLINKERED lefties in my review (which is why I used the adjective “blinkered”), who have their identities caught up in their socio-political orientation. Surely you know the type I mean? You can predict their every opinion on everything, they are in permanent defensive mode and in no way open to argument, and attack anyone who dissents from their views like rabid dogs. The world is a very black and white place for these people – they’re right and anyone who doesn’t share their views is wrong, if not bad and evil. They’re just like Ben, except they are not courageous or stupid enough to try to create a utopia out of their ideals.

    If you have a look at the critical response to this film, it’s mostly glowing, if not gushingly positive. These people do not perceive Ben as a “dickhead” – quite the opposite. How do you explain that, if it’s not as I asserted?

    The rest of your comments I agree with completely.


  3. Mm, fair enough, you did say “blinkered lefties” – but you’d have to admit that kind of black-and-white always-right stuff is not confined to the left.

    Yes, I have been surprised by the critical reaction to the film. It hasn’t been very critical at all! I did come across one review that compared Ben to religious fundamentalists and suggested that he would not have been so well received (by audiences) had he been presented as a fundie or survivalist. I don’t think all the other reviewers have been blinkered lefties, though; I just don’t think they are very discerning or perceptive. However, of my two companions on the day I saw it, only one agreed with me. The other really enjoyed the film!

  4. Oh, no argument from me on this self-righteous black and white shit being a malaise of the right as well as the left – absolutely true. It’s just that it’s more disappointing coming from the left, for me at least, because it’s so hypocritical. Like Ben, the rabid left is supposed to be libertarian, yet they exercise a brand of totalitarianism themselves. And with such self-righteousness. My main lament is that that stands in the way of understanding, self-knowledge and TRUTH! All any of us should be about is getting to the truth of things, not asserting our rightness. But that’s probably my brand of idealism talking…

    It’s irksome, but doesn’t surprise me, in a way, that people seem to have embraced the film. Partly the Vigo factor, I suspect. And the kids are charming. Also, I reckon people want to believe in something better than the way things are now, and maybe see Ben as at least having the guts to live by convictions that are relics of a more hopeful and naive time that many – including me – miss. Dunno. Just off the top of my increasingly muddled and nostalgia-prone head.

    I was reading a piece on the film yesterday, and Vigo was saying there was “a lot of love” on set, and that he and the kids had a really special bond etc etc. Maybe people are tapping into that – it does come across in the film.


  5. BTW, I think that fundie/survivalist comparison and the comment wrapped around it is spot on. It’s a pithier and more potent version of what I’ve been attempting to say (so I would declare it spot on, wouldn’t I, heh heh).

    1. Excellent review. Thanks, Karen.

      The following is the part you referred to, and I agree so wholeheartedly with the reviewer that I think it worth cutting and pasting here:

      If Ben were a “Jesus Camp” type, steeped in a political brand of Christianity, preparing his kids for apocalyptic Rapture, would his behavior be presented as adorably eccentric as it is here? Would a film present a survivalist-dad holed up with his kids and his weaponry as uncritically? It’s the same mindset, just different ideologies. Just because Ben is a lefty doesn’t mean he’s not a jerk. “Captain Fantastic” could have used a lot more skepticism.


    1. No worries about linking to other reviews – any links that are relevant are welcome. Peter Bradshaw’s probably my favourite reviewer, actually. Occasionally, he has me sitting back scratching my head in bemusement at his findings, but most of the time I’m nodding jawohl.


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