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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.
  • Nai, the youngest boy.


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.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Ben's brother in-law seems to be trying to hide a smile after Ben proves the home-schooled Zaja is much smarter than her older cousins, who are in Middle School and High School where his wife is less amused (though it's possible he's trying to reassure Zaja, who looks confused and worried when Harper snaps at Ben).
  • Adult Fear: From Jack and Abigail's point of view it's easy to understand why Jack has so many concerns.
    • Firstly their 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.
    • Then their grandson shows up not long after her funeral, covered in cuts and bruises and with an untreated broken hand, raising the spectre of their grandchildren being physically abused. On top of which they discover that the kids aren't in school as they thought. And on top of that their granddaughter is almost killed trying to "rescue" her brother from a situation he's in willingly - on her father's orders, no less.
    • From Ben's perspective, the hospital scene where the doctor explains how close Vespyr came to being paralyzed or killed, knowing he was the one who put her in that position.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • Badass Beard: Ben sports an impressive beard, and he's an athletic, intellectual survivor.
  • 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.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Leslie seems to have grown up in a privileged lifestyle (the kids call her parents' mansion a vulgar display of wealth) and its 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 his sons start to openly question him and almost gets Vespyr killed during an attempt to "save" Rellian from his grandparents' house (where he's staying voluntarily). His leaving the kids with Jack and Abigail is directly because of the last of those events.
  • Brick Joke: "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.
  • 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.
    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.
  • 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. His wife Abigail is an even straighter example, with none of Jack's antagonism towards Ben.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Referenced and subverted when, 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.
  • 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.
  • Esperanto, the Universal Language: Vespyr and Kielyr can speak Esperanto fluently, much to Ben's annoyance.
  • 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.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Jack's hatred of Ben, while understandable on several points, seems to stem from his desire to remember the daughter he knew rather than the person she became with Ben - something Ben's crashing the funeral brings into the open. It also seems he displaces the blame for everything that happened onto Ben, which ignores the decisions Leslie herself took in how to raise the children and manage her illness (which the letter Abigail produces makes clear).
    • Ben's shooting down Bo's university hopes in favour of staying with the family seems at least partially motivated by a fear of losing any of his kids so soon after losing his wife. It's also subtly suggested, given his admissions to the kids near the end, that his desire to prove his lifestyle's superiority in the scenes with his sister stems from an unwillingness to acknowledge that it failed to help his wife as he thought, and that other parts of his teachings might prove equally fallible.
  • 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 towards a farm and enrolls them in school.
  • The Hermit: At the beginning, the family lifestyle is close to this.
  • Hidden Depths: Jack is willing to do calisthenics with the kids and is fairly limber and happy at it.
  • Hippie Parents: Ben and Leslie. Jack even derogatorily refers to him as a "hippie in a clown suit" after Leslie's funeral.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: Rellian's reaction to hearing his mother killed himself involves stabbing the wall while angrily yelling out his feelings about her doing that, and the other kids are also pretty affected by it.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Initiation Ceremony: 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.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While Ben's sister and her family seem to be mostly there to show the superiority of Ben's lifestyle over their urban one, her belief Ben's lifestyle will get the kids killed turns out to have some grounding in truth after Vespyr is almost killed trying to "free" Rellian on her father's orders.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Not in the traditional sense, but Jack's arrival in the narrative marks the point where the film loses much of its Fish out of Water humour and becomes more serious as it looks at the pitfalls of Ben's parenting more closely.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Ben, at the campsite.
    Ben: It's just a penis. Every man has one.
  • 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.
  • 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 the realization that there's a lot his book learning hasn't prepared him for hit him hard.
  • Mundane Object Amazement: The kids are amazed (and, aside from Rellian, appalled) by their cousin's 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and even apologizes to them for it.
  • Not So Different: Frank Langella suggested that Ben and Jack's disagreements stem from this, both being inflexible, strong willed men who love Leslie and the kids deeply and are convinced they're doing the best thing for them, even when they're really not.
    • It's even shown Ben and Jack are both hunters (though for different reasons - Ben for sustenance, Jack for sport). Their chosen bows subtly show that though the two are very different there are base similarities; Jack shoots at Ben with a with a modern sports bow, while Ben later leaves his (likely hand-crafted) wooden bow with Jack.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Zigzagged. It's made clear that 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 made clear 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.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Ben. He fakes a heart attack to steal food. He offers a book named "The Joy of Sex" to Nai, a very young boy. Since he's not interested, he offers him Rellian's large Bowie knife to play with. 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.
  • 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 steal her body for cremation, how Ben, the kids and Jack variously choose to see and remember her drives much of the film.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 firecamp:
    • In the bus, Kielyr has to discourse about Lolita when Ben sees her reading it.
    • 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" birthday instead of Christmas.
    • Leslie's favorite song was Sweet Child o' Mine.
  • Stocking Filler: Claire wears some at the campsite.
  • Straw Character: Pointedly averted; while some of the scenes with Ben's in-laws seem to be there so Ben can prove the superiority of his lifestyle, the film takes pains to show that many of their points have some validity to them. Most notably, while the Bill of Rights scene seems to prove the superiority of the home-schooled Zaja's knowledge over her conventionally-educated cousins, by the film's end Ben has indeed enrolled his kids in school and made an effort to provide more stability in their lives after things go horribly wrong for him - just as his sister Harper wanted in that scene's start.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: There's a moment during the funeral where the priest talks about Leslie loving long walks in the moonlight, prompting the girls to turn to their father with "Really?" expressions on their faces. Ben's expression in response screams this.
  • 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. 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: Including physical exercising, landfarming and art expression, the family members are timing their days with various activities.
  • 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, in the middle of a campsite. He met her a few hours before.
  • 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 agreeing to bring the grandkids over for Thanksgiving.


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