I was fifteen when my mother, after reading one too many Wendell Berry books, decided that our family needed to get more in touch with “the land.” We started eating bone-marrow broth and brown rice and taking hikes in the woods behind our local mall. My mom did her best, but our time communing with Mother Earth lasted only three months: Summer came, and with it trips to Grandma’s house and unlimited access to refined sugar and cable TV. Bone-marrow broth just couldn’t compete.
Still, my stomach twisted in recognition as I watched the new film Captain Fantastic, which stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a father raising his six kids to be radically self-sufficient far from the materialism and comforts of modern life. The Cash family lives in a yurt deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, growing their own food, wearing animal pelts, and reading philosophy together by firelight. You don’t see as many big families in real life anymore, and the ones on TV tend to be cartoonish or dramatized beyond belief. But writer and director Matt Ross deserves serious credit: He’s brought to life a believable, united family you might actually want to be a part of, even with the yurt and weird hats.
The Cash’s have been living in the woods for fifteen years when the film starts, though missing from the scene is wife and mother Leslie (Trin Miller), who for the past three months has been hospitalized. So it’s up to Ben to carry out the couple’s shared goal: “[To create] a paradise out of Plato’s Republic. Our children will be philosopher kings…. We are defined by our actions, not our words.”
This is as close as Ross gets to giving the Cash family a creed. And since Leslie is off-screen for most of the film, the viewer is left to wonder how much of that creed is dictated by the whims of Ben’s personality. The Cash children’s lives are ordered by a strange mishmash of Marxist philosophy, physical fitness, and Socratic teaching methods. But just when Ross lulls you into agreeing that eating only unprocessed foods and meditating together in a meadow is the ideal way to raise a family, he pauses to show the darker, complicated side of Ben’s parenting.
When Ben takes the kids rock-climbing as part of their “training,” twelve-year-old Rellian slips and sprains his wrist. No one will come and rescue you, says Ben, as he looks down at his injured son from his perch farther up the cliff. You have to rescue yourself. Rellian finishes the climb, but was the lesson worth the fall? Ben also pits his two teenaged daughters against each other in a practice fight, instructing them to “aim for the liver or kidneys.” Would he have gotten away with this if Leslie weren’t in the hospital?
But then the Cash family’s time in paradise comes to an end: Leslie dies, and they leave their mountain haven to return to a world Ben has spent fifteen years training his children to reject. So subtly has Ross grounded the audience in the family’s untroubled existence that viewers are almost as shocked as they are to be dropped into civilization.
Like Little Miss Sunshine, which was also a Sundance standout, Captain Fantastic wrestles with important questions like how to talk about death and mental illness and what it means to be a good parent. Also like Little Miss Sunshine, it doesn’t let such questions undermine its sense of humor. Driving to Leslie’s funeral in New Mexico, Ben tries to cheer up the children by stealing a cake and staging an impromptu “Noam Chomsky Day” celebration, complete with gifts of Kevlar army knives and a song for “Uncle Noam.” Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Bo’s introduction to the real world includes his first kiss, at which he promptly proposes to the girl.
Yet the way in which the children were raised continues to be questioned; the longer they’re in this world, the more outlandish their upbringing looks. The harshest verdict comes from Leslie’s father (Jack, played by Frank Langella), who eventually accuses Ben of child abuse and threatens to sue for custody. The audience’s sympathies are torn: Are the children totally unprepared for the real world, as Jack declares, or is the opposite true, as Ben insists?
Between Jack’s thundering disapproval and Ben’s cool assurance, it’s difficult to say who is right. Ross wisely doesn’t try to answer the question. By the film’s conciliatory ending, Ben can acknowledge that good parenting means balancing his and Leslie’s treasured ideals with his children’s needs. If it was a mistake, Ben says of raising a family the way he and Leslie tried, at least it was a “beautiful mistake.”