When a family living in the woods of the Pacific Northwest is forced to integrate into mainstream society, can they successfully adapt?
Ben (Mortensen) has taken his family of six children deep into the forest of the northwestern portion of The United States where they live off the land and off the grid. Teaching them how to hunt for food and exist virtually without modern comforts, he homeschools them so that they are not poisoned by a corrupt society. While they wind up getting an unusual – and in some ways better – education compared to most kids raised in a normal environment, their isolation from the outside world results in an absence of social skills, which can sometimes manifest itself as overt hostility towards outsiders whom they look down upon.
Eventually, tragedy strikes the family in a way that forever changes their world. Ben’s wife – the mother of all these children – has been suffering from severe mental disorders for years, which resulted in her long-term hospitalization. Ultimately, the family gets the news that while institutionalized, she has committed suicide. As if that is not hard enough for Ben and his children to take, they are now confronted with the possibility of having to venture into society in order to attend a funeral which the woman’s Last Will clearly stated would be unwelcome. Instead, however, Jack (Frank Langella), Ben’s wealthy Father-In-Law, is so angry over his daughter’s demise that he threatens Ben with arrest if he attends the funeral because he feels Ben’s unorthodox lifestyle brought this about.
Defiantly, Ben packs his brood into a tricked-out school bus and and drives to New Mexico for the funeral. Expectedly, he interrupts the church services by making a speech about his late wife and reading her true wishes from her Will; while Jack stops short of having him arrested, he does have Ben forcibly removed from the church. Reunited with his grandchildren – some of whom he’s never met – Jack decides he now wants legal custody of them when one of the boys rebels and refuses to return to live with Ben. In an attempt to rescue his son, Ben winds up putting one of his older daughters in physical jeopardy, resulting in her hospitalization. With all these events occurring and his oldest son entertaining the prospect of going away to study at college, will Ben be forced to change his ways or will he remain stubborn?
It is difficult to choose what’s most objectionable about “Captain Fantastic”. Is it the fact that protagonist leads his family in defiling a human corpse? Or is the unreasonably demanding suspension of disbelief in multiple plot points an insult to the intelligence of the audience? (Specific citations might include the woman’s suicide itself, or absence of allusions to suing the hospital over this. Lets toss in the question about how the oldest son got a passport all of a sudden, which raises questions about what he used for a birth certificate. There are really too many more to mention)
Basically, Ben is a crackpot who comes across as barely more mentally stable than his late wife. The question then becomes whether the audience is supposed to root for him to become a better father or if we are to root for the children to escape his clutches. At various points, it is unclear which. Is the father evil or merely foolish? Either way, he seems utterly incompetent as a parent and too much of a risk taker who frequently puts his children in great danger, deserving of having them taken away for their own safety.
The audience is given to believe that the hirsute Ben is ready, willing and able to change by virtue of his shaving his unkempt beard and mustache near the conclusion of “Captain Fantastic”. Given how adamant (or obnoxious) he’s been regarding his own personal philosophy, it may be difficult for audiences to buy into this attempt at a character arc. Morphing from the Grizzly Adams version of Bernie Sanders to the dad from “Leave It To Beaver” within the span of the movie’s two hours is hard to swallow, to put it mildly.
Although Frank Langella’s Jack is intended as the role of antagonist, he is a genuine breath of fresh air in this film – not to mention an all too rare oasis of sanity. His presence is a relief for viewers given the anxiety built by witnessing the treacherous situations in which the children have been placed. While it may be an overstretch for him to accuse Ben of his daughter’s death, he’s justified in his efforts to protect his grandchildren by all means at his disposal. The title “Captain Fantastic” may be seen as either ironic or sarcastic, but its protagonist is definitely far from heroic.