Quick Answer: Captain Fantastic (2016) follows a man who has chosen to raise his entire family in the wilderness, in part because of his complex belief system. This patriarch, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), is ultra left-leaning and believes unflinchingly in honesty, scholarship, and self-sufficiency in nature. While Ben's beliefs tend to be rigid and unyielding, the film takes a more nuanced look at his life, at its joys and its consequences.
At times Captain Fantastic (2016) can feel like a liberal arts crash course. The film follows Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children whom he and his wife have raised in the wilderness, teaching them to train like marines and study like scholars. This rigorous home schooling has left Ben with a brood of “philosopher kings” – or at least little kids who could easily place out of Philosophy 101. Mao, Stalin, Trotsky, Plato and Chomsky are just a sampling of the never-ending stream of important figures and theories that run throughout this film. But in this big jumble of big ideas, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what Ben and his family believe.
Viggo Mortensen as "Ben" in Captain Fantastic (2016)
Ben’s actual ethical system is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the film. He believes strongly in living with nature, hunting one’s own food and taking responsibility for one’s survival without being dependent on larger society. His entire self-sustainable lifestyle is a rejection of capitalism, so he is far from that idealogy’s biggest fan. Communist ideals play a role in his society, but he appears to dislike any group system larger than the family unit, and it’s hard to imagine him as a participant in a communist system wherein he’s not the leader. He is a huge proponent of the sciences – he tells his teenage daughter that he is going to quiz her on M-theory – and he eschews religion. Exceedingly secular, he openly disparages organized religion and celebrates Noam Chomsky Day in lieu of Christmas. He values self-education and rigorous discipline of the mind and body.
Ben's catchphrases are “Power to the people” and “Stick it to the Man.” But, paradoxically, he does not seem to really believe that all people are equal, nor that should they share power equally. When he pits his youngest daughter Zaja against her two much-older cousins to see who knows the most about the Bill of Rights, he is openly mocking the boys’ traditional education and how it has not prepared them to speak nearly as eloquently as his 7-year old daughter. The fact that his children are referred to as “philosopher kings” is also very telling; this is an idea that comes from Plato, who believed that the power should be in the hands of an intelligent and just elite, not in the hands of the people.
Viggo Mortensen and Annalise Basso in Captain Fantastic (2016)
The movie itself subtly isolates the audience, who is presumably less intelligent than Ben and his kin. It name-drops dozens of intellectuals, with even his teenage son throwing around sentences such as “Only a Stalinist would say Trotskyite. I'm a Maoist.” In a scene on the bus where the two teenage twin daughters are speaking in Esperanto and Ben is speaking to them in German, the film does not include subtitles – it does not want to include you in on the conversation; the point is to regard the characters’ intellect from a distance. The language of Esperanto itself is an apt metaphor for the spirit of the film. It was idealistically engineered to be a truly international language that would be easy for anyone of any origin to learn, but in reality less than .02% of the word’s population can speak it at all.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Ben’s beliefs is their absolute rigidity, which is magnified by the social isolation of the family. When Ben takes the kids to a diner for the first time, the youngest ones assume that all of the overweight people in the restaurant are sick. When another asks what cola is, Ben responds that it’s “poison water.” To kids who have spent ten years of their lives undergoing survival training in the wilderness, a simple cheeseburger becomes a forbidden fruit.
Ben leading his children through their daily training in Captain Fantastic (2016)
This firm severity and discipline of belief can border on inflexibility and closed-mindedness. Ben scoffs at the idea of his son Bo (George MacKay) receiving an Ivy League education because he doesn’t believe those schools could teach Bo anything new. His kids have learned to fluently denounce the evils of capitalism, but have never even heard of Nike. His oldest son Bo knows to respect women, but does not know that it is not socially acceptable to propose marriage right after your first kiss.
Writer/director Matt Ross does not shy away from the limitations of Ben’s way of life. The movie shows both the strengths and the drawbacks the Captain Fantastic philosophy. With the opening tragedy, we learn that Ben’s wife suffered extreme depression, which Ben’s back-to-basics lifestyle was not equipped to address. Clearly, withdrawing from larger society is not without life-threatening risks and sacrifices.
As a parent, Ben never shields his children, however young, from information. With an almost sacred regard for honesty, Ben answers his young son's questions about rape without flinching and allows his children to sample wine. On the one hand, this allows his children to grow mentally far beyond their years. On the other, when he takes them rockclimbing and barks that they will not be rescued if they fall, we see a ruthlessness to Ben’s philosophy that outsiders view as parental neglect bordering on abuse.
It is never clear exactly what Ben thinks he is preparing his kids for. Survival during the nuclear apocalypse brought on by the violent wars that will stem from capitalist greed? Becoming the first ever world-renowned professors without a degree to their names? Throughout the film both the kids and Ben need to come to terms with the fact that none of them are prepared for life outside of the great outdoors. It seems that Ben has taught his kids everything, except how to lead a normal life in the flawed, wide world as it exists.
Annalise Basso, Viggo Mortensen, and Shree Crooks in Captain Fantastic (2016)
In some ways Ben is a caricature of the ultra-left-leaning, guitar-playing, Buddhism-practicing (but as a philosophy, not a religion) hippie that his bushy beard makes us expect. But this extremity serves its own purpose. Whether any of Ben’s mix of beliefs is actually right or a preferable basis by which to live and parent is unknowable, and philosophers have spent centuries trying to decide these questions. Ross wasn’t going to figure out all the answers in just under two hours. But if Ben’s views are extreme, the film’s view of Ben is nuanced. It celebrates his passions and commitments to living a “fantastic” life of truth and self-discipline while questioning his extremity, isolation and the dangers to which he exposes his children. In the end, Captain Fantastic sends the message that it’s important to remain true to our own ideals and ourselves, but a degree of compromise helps us open up to a wider world of experiences.