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Film / Captain Fantastic

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Captain Fantastic is a 2016 movie, directed by Matt Ross with Viggo Mortensen and Frank Langella.

Ben Cash lives with his six children in the wilderness of Washington State, preserving their lifestyle In Harmony with Nature, mostly away from society. However, the family has been thrown into turmoil by the hospitalization of Ben's wife Leslie with bipolar disorder, and early in the film she commits suicide.

While trying to cope with this trauma, Ben and the family decide it is time for them to travel to her funeral and meet their extended family in New Mexico, including Leslie's disapproving father Jack (Langella), confronting urban society as they go. Along the way cracks start to show as the children begin to come of age in this strange new environment, forcing Ben to confront his decisions and their future head-on.

Ben (Mortensen) and Leslie have six children:

  • Bodevan aka "Bo", the oldest sibling. Highly intelligent but socially awkward due to his lack of contact with others his own age.
  • Twin daughters Vespyr and Kielyr. Vespyr is quiet and attached to nature, while Kielyr is the most energetic and curious of the family.
  • Rellian, the middle son. Increasingly angsty and unhappy with the family's lifestyle.
  • Zaja, the youngest daughter at 8-years-old. Highly intelligent for her age, but with a Played for Laughs obsession with death.
  • Nai, the youngest boy. Endlessly curious and more naive than his siblings about the outside world, but occasionally capable of great insight.

Captain Fantastic contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Some of Ben's decisions may be seen this way. Jack even threatens to sue him for it after Rellian runs away to live with him, pointing out their training regime has left him with cuts and bruises all over his body, including an untreated broken hand.
  • Actually Pretty Funny:
    • Keilyr can only chuckle at Ben's (jokingly) telling her to kill her sister after she objects to his praising Vespyr for accidentally stabbing her in a training session.
    • Where Harper is distinctly unamused when Ben proves her fears about the kids' education groundless by showing the home-schooled Zaja is much smarter than her older cousins (who are in Middle School and High School), her husband Dave seems to be trying to hide a smile - though it's possible he's trying to reassure Zaja, who looks confused and worried when Harper snaps at Ben.
  • Aerith and Bob: Bodevan, Vespyr, Kielyr, Rellian, Zaja, Nai, and their parents — Ben and Leslie. Explained in story that Ben and Leslie intentionally made their names unique so that there'd only ever be one of them in the world.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: It's subtle, but Ben's clearly had a good bit of red wine to drink when Bo confronts him - the bottle he has is empty by the time Bo arrives - which might explain his unusually harsh and mocking response to Bo revealing he's been accepted by every major college, with his mother's help, no less.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Rellian puts one of these to Bo in the aftermath of the disastrous funeral; when Bo scoffs at his suggestion that their father is dangerous and made their mother sick, an emotional Rellian asks him if he really thinks their lives are so great, or that Ben is so perfect. He storms off, but it drives a visibly contemplative Bo to confront his father, culminating in the entry directly below.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: When Ben and Bo argue about his going to college, Ben says he's already past that level, speaking six languages, knowing physics and classical literature - but Bo's response silences him after he makes clear no amount of reading will make up for his having no clue how to operate outside his family's bubble.
    Bo: I know nothing! I KNOW NOTHING!!! I am a freak because of you!... Unless it comes out of a fucking book I don't know anything about anything!
  • As You Know: During Ben's phone call to Harper early on, she notes that Ben is her brother.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: When Bo shows his father the acceptance letters, Ben initially says well done and that it's very impressive, leading to a Hope Spot for Bo - then makes it clear he's referring to Bo successfully doing all this behind his back and lying to his face. This forces Bo to reveal Leslie helped him, leading to the first major break between father and son.
  • Blatant Lies: Most of what Bo tells Claire, the girl at the rest stop. Among other things he claims that they live in France and his mother is a spy. Claire's face indicates she doesn't believe a word of it.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: A movie-wide case. While many of Ben's points about the commercialized urban society, its failings and the advantages of raising his children in the way he does are shown to be accurate, many of the points Ben's sister and her husband, Ben's father in-law Jack, and even Ben's own sons Bo and Rellian make about the kids' social development and the dangers of their lifestyle are shown to be equally valid. Fittingly, the movie ends with Ben implicitly striking a compromise by ultimately allowing Bo to travel out into the world to find his own path in life and also allowing the rest of the kids to enroll in school and get a conventional education as well as have the ability to leave him and integrate and interact with conventional modern society when they're older if that's what they so choose...while still in the meantime having himself and the kids live on a farm that's relatively isolated from the rest of society so that he doesn't have to completely abandon his comfort zone.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Leslie seems to have grown up in a privileged lifestyle (the kids call her parents' mansion a vulgar display of wealth) and it's implied that a lot of living in the wilderness was her idea. It's mentioned at her funeral she gave up her law practice to be with Ben.
  • Break the Haughty: Ben near the end of the film. He loses his wife, gets kicked out of her funeral, has two of his sons start to openly question him, and almost gets his daughter Vespyr killed during an attempt to "save" Rellian from his grandparents' house (where he's staying voluntarily). This makes him decide to leave the kids with Jack and Abigail. Unusually though, he doesn't come out the worse for it, as the kids decide to stay with him and cremate their mother the way he always wanted.
  • Brutal Honesty: One of Ben's hallmarks as a father; he'll never shy away from telling his kids the harsher truths in life if they ask. Most notable during the dinner scene with his sister's family; where his brother-in-law Dave skirts around the issue of telling his sons about Leslie's death as delicately and ambiguously as possible, Ben comes right out and tells them the extent of her bipolar disorder and that she killed herself by slitting her wrists - causing Harper to storm out.
    • Later, after her husband tries to diplomatically say that the kids' lives could use more stability, Harper explodes that Ben's going to get them killed.
  • Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie: Leslie's last wishes were to be cremated, and that her ashes would be flushed down the toilet. Her family respected it, eventually.
    Ben: I assume you know that Leslie was a Buddhist. That means she wanted to be cremated, not buried.
  • Coming of Age Story: There are several teachings and lessons from elders (mainly Ben) to younglings, especially Bo and Rellian. Unusually, in places they learn these lessons almost in spite of Ben rather than because of him.
  • Daddy's Girl: Vespyr and Kielyr are more devoted to Ben and his way of life than Bo and Rellian. Even after Ben's "mission" to rescue Rellian almost gets Vespyr killed when she falls off the roof, she still views it as an accident rather than seeing the problems with what her father asked her to do - something Ben does by this point.
  • Death Glare: A furious Jack spends most of the church scene shooting these at Ben, first when the family gatecrashes the service after he'd specifically warned Ben off, and again when Ben gets up to deliver his own eulogy to his late wife.
  • Doting Grandparent: While Jack feuds with Ben on various points he does his best to make sure the conflict doesn't affect his grandkids; he's still happy to see them after the funeral, and treats them very well during their stay, even trying their workout routine with them and promising a worried Ben he'll take care of Bo's college tuition. His wife Abigail is an even straighter example, with none of Jack's antagonism towards Ben.
  • Double Entendre: Bo accidentally drops a classic one of these during his ill-fated proposal to Claire;
    Bo: The way she has opened me up, she has penetrated deep, deep inside of me, and I know that I have penetrated deep, deep inside of your daughter. And...[realises what he's just said, starts stuttering] but not - not like that.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Discussed example. Ben is explaining to Nai what rape is, noting that the victim is usually but not always a woman and the perpetrator usually but not always a man.
  • Due to the Dead: To Leslie. Much of the movie's conflict is due to the contrasting ideologies of Ben (who advocates a Buddhist cremation in accordance with Leslie's will) and Jack (who wants a Christian funeral to remember his daughter as he knew her) in doing this. Ben's way wins eventually, though not entirely intentionally on his part. It all culminates in a Deliberate Values Dissonance shot of the family flushing the ashes down an airport toilet.
  • Eagleland: Both flavors.
    • Flavor 1.
      Nai: Everyone's so fat!
      Zaja: [...] our country is ruled by corporations and their lobbyists who fund candidates and command their fealty [...]
    • Flavor 2.
      Zaja: Without the Bill of Rights, we'd be more like China. Here at least, we don't have warrantless searches. We have free speech. Citizens are protected from cruel and unusual punishments.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Claire intently watches Bo doing yoga without his shirt at the rest stop, although part of this might have been out of being impressed by the moves he could do.
  • Everyone Has Standards: She seems to be OK hunting and later butchering wild animals, but Kielyr's completely freaked out when she stalks and prepares to shoot a sheep, which, being domesticated, has no instinct to flee or fight back around humans. Ben is competely bewildered by this as his daughter retreats in disgust.
    Kielyr: They're just standing there!
  • Exact Words:
    Jack: You told me they were in school.
    Ben: They are. Leslie and I are their teachers.
  • Flipping the Bird: The kids' cousins do this (albeit somewhat playfully) as they leave, much to Nai's confusion.
  • Food End: The movie ends with a lengthy shot of the family having breakfast.
  • Funeral Banishment: The plot of the film is kickstarted when the protagonist's father-in-law prohibits him and his children from attending his wife's funeral, but they decide to come anyway.
  • Funny Background Event: When Nai starts questioning Ben on the intricacies of sex during the trip, Kielyr can be seen trying not to laugh in the background. Later, when Ben decides to knuckle down and give him a full book on the subject, she can be seen again be seen staring in mute horror just behind Ben.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: Jack can seem pretty harsh towards Ben, and Ben and his simpler lifestyle are treated with some respect, but as Jack's actor Frank Langella notes during a bonus featurette, "Viggo's not a hero, and I'm not a villain". Jack and Abigail have some genuine concerns about how the children are being brought up, in regards to their social development and the Training from Hell. At the end of the film, Taking a Third Option comes into play when Ben retains custody of the children and much of his agrarian lifestyle, but moves the family to a farm and enrolls them in school.
  • Headbutt of Love: Bo and Ben share one at the airport before Bo leaves for Namibia.
  • The Hermit: At the beginning, the family lifestyle is close to this, with Ben and Bo only going into town to pick up mail, sell their handmade wooden items and contact Harper about Leslie - and the shopkeeper implies even that's pretty sporadic.
  • Hippie Parents: Ben and Leslie. Jack even derogatorily refers to him as a "hippie in a clown suit" after the funeral service.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Ben has raised the family to have a particular disdain for Christianity, with Vespyr saying at one point that Christians are the only people they make fun of. That Leslie's parents are devout Christians and intend to bury her with a Christian funeral - against her beliefs as a Buddhist - drives much of the conflict between Jack and Ben later in the film.
  • Homeschooled Kids: The film shines a light on the pros and cons of homeschooling. While Ben's homeschooled children are highly educated for their age, they also lack in social skills which are hard to acquire in their isolated environment. The movie ends with Ben sending his kids to a regular school after he comes to accept some of the issues raised about their development.
  • Hospital Gurney Scene: Vespyr's accidental fall is followed by a scene with her on a gurney being wheeled along a hospital corridor alongside a very worried Ben.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: Rellian's reaction to hearing his mother killed herself involves stabbing the wall while angrily yelling out his feelings about her doing that.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Ben preaches discourse among the family and acceptance of other viewpoints, but he's utterly incapable of seeing that there's anything wrong with the way he's raising his family - to the point the kids are basically unable to truly challenge him on anything major. When they do eventually express contrary views he either yells at them and overrides their viewpoints (just after the funeral service) or attempts to ignore it entirely (when he goes to get Rellian and essentially tells him to get back on the bus until the equally willful Jack gets his attention by shooting an arrow at him).
    • His sister is also more subtly this; she's horrified by Ben openly discussing the particulars of Leslie's death with her sons at the dinner table, but they're not only shown to play violent videogames where the object is to kill each other, she actively bribes them with being able to play said games when she needs to talk to Ben without them around.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Rellian, and to a lesser extent Bo. Bo sometimes feels awkward about how other people see them and is trying to enroll in colleges. Rellian asks why they can't celebrate normal holidays, saying that their mother might not have killed herself if she'd been kept in a normal environment and seen health professionals more, and temporarily leaving the family to live with his grandparents.
  • I Am Not My Father: Rellian's mounting frustration with the family lifestyle eventually leads to this, rejecting his father entirely in favour of his privileged but loving grandparents.
  • I Miss Mom: The kids clearly feel this way, and Nai even states this word for word at one dark point.
  • The Idealist: Bo is an ex-Trotskyist turned Maoist.
  • If I Wanted You Dead...: When Jack shoots an arrow after Ben, the latter is shocked and enraged, and tells his father-in-law that he could have killed him. Jack replies in a relaxed voice that if he wanted to hit him, he would have.
  • Imagine Spot: Ben can sometimes see and talk to his wife at night.
  • Important Haircut: When Ben leaves his children, he shaves his beard. Later, Bodevan cuts his hair short, just before Leslie's cremation.
  • Ironic Echo: "Clothes when we eat". First Ben says this to Nai, when he comes to the campfire naked early on. Nai later repeats the same thing to Ben at the campsite when he's the one undressed.
  • Ironic Name: The Cash family is very anti-consumerist and isn't made of money.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Bodevan got accepted into most of the major universities with the help of his mother. Slightly more believable than most examples due to his home-schooled education under Ben leaving him incredibly knowledgable about subjects as diverse as classical literature and theoretical physics.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Ben is an obnoxious, know it all jerk who constantly has to rub into everyone's faces just how above it all he is and how intelligent he and his children are. Yet he sincerely loves his children and wants to do what is best for them. He comes to the realization by the film's end that he has to let them go and grow into being their own people.
  • Ludicrous Precision: When Ben claims that Leslie hasn't been gone very long, Keilyr replies that it has been "three months, two weeks, six days, and 11 hours."
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Ben, at the campsite.
    Ben: It's just a penis. Every man has one.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Ben and Leslie have six children.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Power to the people, stick it to the Man." Between Ben and his children, then Bo and Nai as he leaves for Namibia.
  • Monochrome Casting: A journey across the Southern states yet they encounter no non-white character with a speaking part.
  • Mood Whiplash: Bo's Wacky Marriage Proposal to Claire is played for laughs as she and her mother crack up laughing at the absurdity of it - but then, after they leave, there's a long shot of a clearly bewildered and hurt Bo turning to go, and you can see his painful realization that there's a lot his books about Old-School Chivalry haven't prepared him for.
  • Mundane Object Amazement: The kids are amazed (and, aside from Rellian, appalled) by their cousins' videogames.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After Vespyr falls from the roof, the doctor makes Ben realize she could have been paralyzed or died. He decides to leave the children under Jack's care shortly after.
  • "No Peeking!" Request: Ben asks his children not to look before bringing out gifts for them to celebrate "Noam Chomsky Day".
  • Not Helping Your Case: Ben really doesn't give the best impression of things when explaining to Jack how his kids ended up stealing on their trip there.
    Ben: Leslie and I are their teachers. Are -- were their teachers.
    Jack: So you're teaching them to steal?
    Ben: Of course not.
    Jack: "Mission: free the food"?
    Ben: ...that was part of their training.
    Jack: So you're training them to steal?
  • Not in Front of the Kid: Ben's sister Harper is irritated about how Ben swears in front of her children (though she later swears in front of Zaja when Ben stresses her too much) and openly discusses how Leslie killed herself. Leslie's father Jack is also clearly infuriated he's having to have a massive row with Ben in front of his grandkids at their mother's funeral and even apologizes to them for it.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Zigzagged. While Ben's relationships with his in-laws are tempestuous, it's largely due to both sides lacking a middle ground to truly understand each other's way of life.
    • While Ben and Jack hardly get on, to the point of threatening to call the cops, many of Jack's issues are shown to have at least some validity to them. It's unspoken but strongly implied that Jack is trying to remember a daughter he long since ceased to know as she was - something Ben serves as a constant reminder of. Their last conversation is at least fairly respectful, with Jack implicitly acknowledging Ben's love for Leslie when he sees him gazing wistfully at old photos of her.
    • In contrast to Jack, Leslie's mother Abigail averts this trope much more. While she's visibly unhappy with Ben's speech at the funeral, she loves the kids as much as Jack, and is far kinder to her son-in-law. She even takes pains to share some of Leslie's letters with Ben to comfort him after he decides to leave the kids with them.
    • Ben's brother-in-law once called Leslie a "fucking bitch" after an argument about serving children sugary breakfasts but regrets this and is slightly more accepting of Ben and his family than his wife (Ben's sister) is, trying to play peacemaker during their after-dinner argument. Even she at least expresses sympathies for Leslie's death and how hard it must be for them all, and Ben in turn apologises for not respecting the rules of their house.
  • Only Sane Man: For a given definition of sane, but Rellian is the only one of the kids to take Ben's teaching of critical thinking and questioning the man and apply it to questioning Ben himself. The problem is that being only 12 he has trouble expressing himself in the face of his more experienced father and a family that usually blindly agrees with him - leading to his extreme approach of running away to live with his grandparents near the film's end.
  • Open-Minded Parent: Ben and Leslie. That said, it's clear Ben is himself quite close-minded about the kids learning anything about the commercialized suburban world his in-laws inhabit, something that drives the conflict between him and first Rellian, then later Bo.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Jack and Abigail's daughter develops a serious mental illness, and her husband's response (as he himself admits later) is to simply hope she'll get better - and when she doesn't, it's too late to do anything meaningful before she dies.
  • Parents as People: Ben clearly loves his kids, has raised them to be very intelligent and capable and honestly thinks he's doing what is best for them but he struggles to accept that they want to live their own lives now, and that may not include continuing to do things as he does. He also struggles to accept that, for all the benefits of how he raised them, there were also negative side effects such as an impaired ability to form relationships with people outside their circle.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: After taking a bit of time to introduce the family and their situation, Leslie's suicide kicks off the main plot as the family travel to the funeral to ensure her wish to be cremated is respected.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Ben. He's anti-capitalist/anti-consumerist to the point he fakes a heart attack so the kids can steal food, despite scenes before and after establishing he has no money worries. Vespyr indicates that while he's raised the family to not make fun of anyone, Christians are the only fair game. He offers a book named "The Joy of Sex" to Nai (a six-year old) after he earlier queried him about it - and since he's not interested, he gives him a Ka-Bar knife to play with instead. Later, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, he's shown not only reading Maus to Nai at his sister's house, but explaining to him what the showers actually did.
    Vespyr: But you said hospitals are only a great place to go if you're a healthy person and you want to die.
    Zaja: You said Americans are uneducated and overmedicated.
    Kielyr: You said that AMA are avaricious whores only too willing to spread their fat legs for big pharma.
    Ben: All those things are true.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • When an upset Nai complains he's hungry after Ben has had a multilingual argument with the equally stressed twins, he gets this response;
      Ben: Then maybe one of you should have shot the fucking sheep!
    • A spectacular one later in the film, from 6-year-old Nai of all people, as he sees his mother's Christian headstone.
      Nai: Let's dig. Otherwise she has to lie under that bullshit forever.
  • Principles Zealot: Ben is dogmatic about his off-the-grid lifestyle and intolerant of the consumerist lifestyle of The Outside World, to the point where he leaves a diner because they don't have any "real food." As part of his Character Development, he learns to be more tolerant of other people's lifestyles.
  • Posthumous Character: Leslie's death is what kicks off the family's adventure. Though she never appears outside of Ben's visions until the family steals her body for cremation, how Ben, the kids and Jack variously choose to see and remember her drives much of the film.
  • Quirky Household: The Cash family might be strange by the standards of mainstream American society, but they clearly all love each other.
  • Rite of Passage: The movie starts with Bo killing a deer as a maturity initiation.
    Ben: Today the boy is dead, and in his place is a man.
  • Road Trip Plot: Going from Washington State to New Mexico, for Leslie's funeral.
  • Running Gag: Nai asking his father "What's-?" after hearing a new (and often fairly mature) word or phrase. There's also Zaja's expertly matter-of-fact running commentary on ways to die whenever the family does physical training.
  • Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: After training in the family ways, the children are stronger, smarter and far better-read than other children their own ages - but in doing so they have no understanding of the urban world they have to move through to make it to Leslie's funeral, with Rellian and later Bo really feeling it.
  • Sanity Slippage: Ben after getting kicked out of Leslie's Christian funeral. He openly yells at the kids to sit down and shut up when they question him (after encouraging discourse earlier), only decides against going to the burial after Bo makes it clear his getting arrested will mean they lose him too, dashes Bo's college hopes and mocks him for lying to him, discovers his wife was helping Bo and so not as dedicated to his lifestyle as he thought and then almost gets Vespyr killed trying to retrieve Rellian from Jack's house AFTER Rellian had voluntarily gone there to live.
  • Shout-Out:
    • At the campfire, all the children are reading various pieces of classical and historical literature:
    • In the bus, Kielyr has to discourse about Lolita when Ben sees her reading it. Quite a few reviews have drawn parallels between how Humbert and Ben are portrayed semi-sympathetically despite often not being so due to so much of their narratives being from their POV.
    • In the supermarket, My Heart Will Go On is ironically playing, when Ben fakes a heart attack to steal food with his kids.
    • Bo mentions "Baby and Child Care" by Benjamin Spock, but he has never heard about Spock from Star Trek.
    • All but Rellian love to celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday instead of Christmas.
    • Leslie's favorite song was Sweet Child o' Mine. The family, led by Kielyr, sing this as a tribute to her at her cremation.
  • Stocking Filler: Claire wears some at the campsite.
  • Tough Love: While not taken to extremes (most other scenes show him being somewhat softer), the climbing scene shows Ben's policy of self-reliance can be this. When Rellian falls none of his family make a move to help, with Ben lecturing him that no-one will magically save him and that he has to help himself - which he does, with an injured hand. Given the particulars of this trope, it's perhaps not surprising this incident is specifically cited by Jack later in the film as proof Ben is physically abusing his children.
  • Tragic Hero: Ben. Highly intelligent, charismatic and extremely physically fit, he's raising his kids to be "philosopher kings" with all his attributes. However, his Fatal Flaw is his distrust of the standard urban society he left behind and his intolerance of that lifestyle. While the film shows there's much truth to his beliefs, it also leads to Leslie dying from suicide when her bipolar disorder didn't get better living in the wild as he thought, leaving it too late to get her proper treatment even after she finally swallows her pride and returns to civilization to try to get proper treatment for it. Later, it leads to his nearly losing his kids when his total inflexibility leads to first clashing with Rellian and Bo as they want to explore the outside world, then nearly getting Vespyr killed in a supremely ill-judged attempt to "save" Rellian from his grandparents.
  • Training from Hell: Shown during the introduction.
  • Training Montage: Ben spaces out the family's days with set amounts of time on various activities, including physical exercising, landfarming and art expression.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Even by the family's standards - where slaughtering animals for meat and duelling with knives is the norm - Ben is a bit freaked out when he discovers Zaja's little shrine of animal bones in her treehouse.
    Ben: Jesus...
    Zaja: [shaking her head, thinking he means the photo behind her] Pol Pot.
  • Wacky Marriage Proposal: Played for Laughs, when Bodevan proposes to Claire (who he met just a few hours before), in the middle of a campsite. Claire and her mother just laugh, assuming he's joking.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Given the conflict between them, it seems odd that Jack disappears from the story after Ben leaves, despite his grandchildren running off with him (without Ben's knowledge, to be fair), digging up his daughter's corpse and cremating it in express opposal to his wishes. The original script sheds a bit more light on things, with the two men communing over the phone and agreeing that despite Jack's unwillingness to forgive the situation, he and Abigail want to see the grandchildren more. The two end up agreeing to bring the grandkids over for Thanksgiving.