Raising the perfect family is tough, but Ben (Viggo Mortensen) in Captain Fantastic seems to have it figured out. In an idyllic Washington State forest—filmed south of Seattle, at the foot of Mount Rainier—he raises his children on the land. They live sustainably, and hunt, garden, and forage for survival. The kids undergo rigorous physical “training” and have the stamina of endurance athletes.
They read constantly for pleasure and education, play a number of instruments, and speak more than six languages. Each member of the family engages in philosophical and political debates. They have surpassed the imagined goal of every liberal Seattle household and successfully achieved perfection in environmentalism, freedom, and intellectual development.
On the other hand, they’re a bunch of assholes. Unable to communicate with anyone in the outside world, the kids (and Ben) are awkward, uncomfortable, and unabashedly quirky. They speak their mind, rudely and without thought for others.
Instead of Christmas, the kids celebrate Noam Chomsky Day and receive hunting knives as gifts. Ben makes the kids scale steep rock faces in the rain. They “liberate” food from a grocery store because The Man owes it to them, embodying the intellectual hippie caricature at every turn—and with infuriating self-righteousness.
In Captain Fantastic, the family has to leave their little compound to attend a funeral, and in the outside world, we get to observe their smug disconnection from society alongside their admirably thoughtful, sustainable, and creative approach to life.
Any audience would have a hard time not laughing out loud at the quick, complex jokes—but liberal, thoughtful Seattleites will get an extra kick when they recognize themselves in the characters. The mood shifts constantly, so that at any given moment the family’s lifestyle seems either ideal or like a mild form of child abuse.
At one point, while driving along in their dark green school bus named “Steve,” Ben quizzes his eldest daughter (Kielyr, because all their names are made up, for maximum individuality) on her reading. She’s immersed in Lolita, and after some prodding, she offers her analysis of the book’s merits: Humbert Humbert is a creepy old man in love with a little girl, but somehow the reader appreciates his perspective. You feel sympathy for him; you understand him.
While what this family is doing is certainly less morally repulsive than pedophilia, the overall effect is similar—their lifestyle may not be entirely admirable, but in the course of Captain Fantastic, the audience develops unexpectedly potent and heart-wrenching empathy.