I went back into my folders and files of little writing snippets – the beginnings of blog posts – and was shocked I hadn’t already written about Captain Fantastic. I have concluded it must be because I thought about it so much. And it’s true, I have been writing about this film in my mind ever since I saw it in October.
Oh, this film is so deep in my heart and in my bones and in my gut. At this point, it’s just part of me and part of my story. And, in a way, it makes it so much harder to know where to start with it… tangled inextricably into so many parts of my life as it is.
And maybe I’ll touch on all of that. But first, the story.
Captain Fantastic is the story of Ben, a father (Viggo Mortensen) who establishes his family outside of traditional society on a self-sustaining homestead in the Pacific Northwest. Their huts, their vegetable gardens, their morning exercise routines, their coming-of-age rituals, and the radical honesty of Ben’s parenting seem almost romantic. It goes without saying that the normal life of this family is so far from what many of us would consider normal.
Right in the beginning of the film (spoilers ahead), we learn that Ben is married; his wife is in a treatment facility for mental illness. Soon after that, Ben learns she has committed suicide. At the pleading of his children, and after considering the risks of exposing them to “normal life,” Ben concedes to travel together with the kids outside their wilderness life of hunting and homeschool to attend their mother’s funeral.
Much of the hilarity and heart of this story unfolds through their adventure, and the kids’ encounters with the “real world.” And much of it through Ben’s attempts to be the best dad he can possibly be for his kids; his choices bring to center stage the biggest questions about parenting: What is the best way to protect my kids? To prepare them? To love them?
Those questions had me in a puddle in the final scene. I experienced an almost urgent desire to tell my parents how much I love them. That I understand they are just two adult humans in the world, doing their best. That I am grateful for the ways they put their lives and dreams on hold so I could have my life and my dreams. And that I’ll do my best to honor and be a good steward of that life as a way to thank them. This film is certainly about the family you don’t choose.
But, it’s also about the family you do choose. We don’t get to see much of Ben’s wife, but writer and director Matt Ross gives us a sense of her. She was wild, and a redhead, with an appetite for adventure and a deep well of love. She laughed freely and was bold and expressive in her adoration of her husband. And she was realistic, pragmatic. But she also struggled. She wasn’t perfect, or fully well, and even had to leave her family to pursue healing.
Ross also gave us a sense of their relationship. You can tell she made him feel like he was always enough and so... he was. Captain Fantastic. The film implies they experienced a kind of committed and sacrificial love that makes building a little kingdom with another person completely attainable. Not easy, but a lifelong project and a lifelong discovery. A covenantal love where the hard work of vulnerability results in one of the greatest gifts of the human experience: true relationship. That somehow the other person is part of you and you part of the other. Where advocating for your own interests fades away as you experience that giving is actually better than taking, that someone needing you is a beautiful part of being an “us,” and that lifting her up makes you strong. As David Brooks says, "People in such a covenant try to love the other in a way that brings out their loveliness. They hope that through this service they’ll become a slightly less selfish version of themselves."
Ben’s final words to his wife before her cremation capture this better than I ever could: “My face is mine, my hands are mine, my mouth is mine, but I'm not. I'm yours.”
This film in my heart and my bones and my gut has done quite a few things for me. It rooted my conviction that advocating for empathy-building art is part of my vocation. It airlifted me out of a hazy complacency and sat me right in front of the biggest questions about commitment, sacrifice, family, and love. I hope it will do something important in you, as well.
All the questions that are worth asking, and all the feelings that are worth feeling, and so many of the human things that make life so beautiful… are all here. You MUST go see it.