ReThink Review: Captain Fantastic - the Pros and Cons of Idealistic Parenting

If you want to have kids, you've probably fantasized about how you would raise them and what values you would instill (or install?) in them. How much daily screen time would they get? Would you only want them to eat organic foods? Which books, movies, and TV shows would you expose them to, and at what age? How much would your perception of the world and its dangers affect how you prepare them for it?

In the wonderful, non-superhero movie Captain Fantastic, we see a perfectly-cast Viggo Mortensen playing Ben Cash, a father who has answered virtually every parenting question to a liberal, intellectual, anti-establishment extreme as he raises his six children off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. But when a tragedy causes him to take his children on the road, it forces Ben (and the audience) to question when raising children through the lens of your own ideals can go too far. Captain Fantastic is a film that shifts deftly from humor to heartbreak to cultural critique and back. Watch the trailer for Captain Fantastic below.

Ben and his recently-hospitalized wife Leslie (Trin Miller) have created a back-to-nature utopia for their children in the evergreen forests of Washington state, where the family grows and hunts their own food, makes and mends their own clothes, and sleeps in a communal tipi. The kids (ages 7 to 18) spend their days doing fitness training and learning survival and mindfulness skills. Evenings are spent playing music, reading by the campfire, and engaging in intellectual conversations about their studies, with nary a smartphone or internet connection in sight.

When a death in the family rocks the family's idyllic life, Ben loads the kids onto Steve, the family's modified school bus, for a road trip through the "real" world to attend the funeral in Albuquerque. As Ben provides a running, scathing commentary for an America the kids are seeing for the first time, the question of whether Ben has devoted his life to preparing his kids for the real world -- and not simply his world -- grows louder. The kids find it hard to hide their enthusiasm for a culture they've been raised to despise, and extended family members voice their criticisms.

As a childless liberal who dabbles in growing my own produce and making my own furniture -- and has dreams of living off the grid with goats and chickens -- Captain Fantastic hit awfully close to home, in a lot of good ways. There's so much I admire about how Ben raises his family, like his commitment to keeping his kids healthy and fit in an age of rampant obesity/diabetes, teaching them to live off the land, and especially his unwavering commitment to open, respectful discussion. Questions from even his youngest kids' are answered truthfully when most parents would waver and obfuscate. And if/when I have kids, you can bet I'll develop their bullshit detectors early by telling them about the dangers and lures of capitalism, consumerism, conformity, and America's political system.

But Captain Fantastic is a great reminder to someone like me that this approach, as well meaning and often correct it might be, could also benefit from some balance. Ben's kids are fluent in several languages, are as fit as elite athletes, and are experts in dozens of college-level subjects (string theory, Karl Marx, etc.), but are effectively aliens in their own country. The oldest son, Bo (George MacKay), can hunt and kill a deer with just a knife, but he's never talked to a girl outside his family. The youngest sibling, Nai (Charlie Shotwell), knows about the Holocaust and Pol Pot, but doesn't understand that most Americans don't slaughter their own meat. And while the kids understand that fast food and factory farming are indeed having a horrible effect on the environment, the treatment of animals, and America's health problems, should a kid grow up in America without knowing what a hamburger tastes like?

We all want what we think will be best for our children, and we desperately want to protect them from the evils of the world. But if this means isolating them -- even in a utopia -- and not letting them learn about the world on their own terms, our children may not get what's best for them or be prepared for what the world has to offer. It's a lesson that every current and future parent, and especially Ben, needs to learn.

With any luck, Mortensen will get an Oscar nomination for his wonderfully soulful performance. As a real-life renaissance man (Mortensen is also a painter, author, photographer, and musician) with an intellectually rebellious streak, it's a role he was born to play, and it's hard to imagine any other actor who could pull it off with his level of sincerity and authenticity. All of the children -- including Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, and Shree Crooks -- are terrific and bring unique personalities to each of the Cash kids. And I haven't even mentioned the fantastic supporting work of Kathryn Hahn as Ben's sister, Steve Zahn (where's he been?) as her husband, and the stellar work of Ann Dowd and especially Frank Langella as Ben's in-laws who blame Ben for taking their daughter away from them and think the way Ben is raising his kids is tantamount to child abuse.

Captain Fantastic is a beautiful, funny, thought-provoking film that always assumes the audience's intelligence, even if you don't know the works of Noam Chomsky or what Esperanto is. It's a film I look forward to seeing again, and if I someday have a child on the way, I'll definitely give Captain Fantastic some very close viewings.

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