Ben and Leslie didn’t much like the world. So they made one of their own.
The couple left society for a homemade utopia, living season by season through harvest and hunt. Their settlement in Washington state grew a child at a time: Bo, then Kielyr; Vesper, Rellian, Zaja and Nai. They practically had enough family to field a baseball team if such things mattered. But they had rocks to climb. Peppers to pick. Classics to read. Ideals to preach.
“Power to the people,” one would say. “Stick it to the man!” the others would chime in. There were no bogeymen under the bed, but there sure were monsters—capitalists and preachers and Big Pharma representatives—beyond the woods. Ben and Leslie wanted to raise their family outside society’s selfish, superficial folds. They’d gather ’round the campfire, not the television. No one would own an iPhone. And there were no outlets to recharge the thing anyway.
But even paradise can’t be perfect. After the birth of one of her babies, Leslie developed a chemical imbalance in her brain. She left months before to get treatment and didn’t return. And one day, when Ben drives into town to call Leslie’s sister to check on her progress, he hears stifled sobs.
Leslie has committed suicide.
It’s hard enough to lose someone you love. But Ben’s gut-wrenching loss isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a catalyst for an existential crisis.
When Leslie and Ben ran off to their utopia, they severed a lot of bonds along the way. Jack, Leslie’s well-to-do-father, blames Ben for everything—from the suicide on down. And if Ben dares show his face at the church funeral in New Mexico, Jack’ll have him arrested.
But here’s the thing: Leslie was a Buddhist. She never wanted to be put in a box and stuffed in the ground under a Christian headstone. Plus, Ben’s children want to see their mother one last time. They have a right to see their mother, he argues.
So what’s a father to do?
Pack the kids up for a road trip, of course. And introduce his kids to the big, bad world for the very first time.
Say what you will about Ben’s radical philosophical leanings: The guy takes his role as a father very, very seriously.
Mornings begin with runs up the mountain. Evenings end with reading time around the campfire—and we’re not talking about Goodnight Moon. The kids are reading Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov, books most kidsdon’t get to until they’re English majors in college. The children not only grow their own food, they bone up on advanced calculus and physics. The results are astounding: Oldest son Bo has been accepted to the nation’s top universities. Little 8-year-old Zaja not only knows what the Bill of Rights is (which already puts her above a healthy chunk of America), she can recite it. Explain what each individual right means. And she can point to relevant moments in American history where those rights were challenged.
But Ben’s not just a grim, hippie taskmaster: He loves his children deeply, coaxing the best out of his kids even as he assures them how much he appreciates and cares for them. And they return his love. Or, at least, they return it most of the time.
Because Ben seems just so practically perfect in every way (from a progressive point of view, of course), Captain Fantastic can be heavy-handed in its praise for him. But there are moments in which we see humanity and love even among capitalists. Jack, Leslie’s dad, isn’t a tyrant: He loved his daughter dearly and wants to protect and care for his grandkids. And Abigail, Jack’s wife, does her best to help Ben and Jack make peace with each other (and their conflicting ideologies), using her own love as a bridge.
Ben and Leslie raised their children in a rabidly anti-religious—specifically, anti-Christian—environment. When Ben reminds his children that they’re not to make fun of anyone, one innocently pipes up, “We make fun of Christians,” catching her father in an inconsistency. We hear often about Leslie’s Buddhist practices (which she considered a philosophy, not a religion), and Ben tells a church full of people (and the nearby priest) that he and his wife considered organized religion to be an instrument of oppression. Instead of celebrating Christmas, which Ben calls a day honoring a “magical, fictitious elf,” the family observes “Noam Chomsky Day”—the birthday of the well-known linguist, philosopher, scientist and activist.
That said, the family isn’t averse to using Christianity to get out of a tight spot. When a state trooper boards the family bus (which they’ve named Steve), Bo and the rest of the children announce they’re homeschooled, begin to sing hymns and attempt to proselytize the officer until he beats a hasty retreat.
But while Ben and the rest of the family are not fans of religion, they do buy into a squishy pseudo-spirituality, using exercises to tap into hidden energy fields and the like. And even though Leslie herself seemed to spurn the idea of an afterlife—asking that her cremated body be flushed down a well-used toilet—the filmmakers have given her one anyway. She visits Ben in his dreams, not to evoke memories but to talk instead about the here and now, about how happy she is that Ben’s raising their kids as they both wanted to.
Ben stands at the door of his bus, fully nude, verbally reminding passersby that every man has what he’s exposing (and exposing to the camera, too.) One of his children sometimes walks around naked as well, though he’s cautioned to always wear clothes at the dinner table. (We see the unclothed child from the rear.)
Ben and daughter Kielyr have a long talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (in which an older man seduces and runs away with a 12-year-old girl), which also leads to a frank, extremely explicit discussion about sexuality with son Nai—a boy of about 7. Ben gives Nai the book The Joy of Sex for Noam Chomsky Day, telling him that it has pictures. (When Nai drops the book in disgust, Ben gives him his real present: a hunting knife.)
Bo encounters a girl about his own age named Clair. The two kiss and make out. When Clair’s mother spies them and puts a stop to it, Bo kneels down and proposes (much to the mutual amusement of both Clair and Mom). Later, Ben offers Bo advice on the world, including the exhortation to be gentle with the first woman he sleeps with. “Treat her with respect and dignity even if you don’t love her,” he says.
“Big Pharma” is compared to a prostitute.
The movie opens with Bo cutting open a deer’s throat. Ben ceremonially dabs his fingers in the blood and marks Bo’s face with it. “Today the boy is dead,” he says. “And in his place is a man.” Bo is then given the animal’s raw liver to eat—which he does.
It’s not easy growing up in Ben’s wilderness. Rock climbing leads to one child falling and perhaps breaking a rib. During hand-to-hand combat training, one girl painfully jabs another with a stick. Elsewhere, one of the children falls off a roof and requires a trip to the hospital. Zaja seems to have her own private hideaway where she guts small animals and fastens their skulls to the teepee roof. (She also, disturbingly, has a picture of Pol Pot hanging on the wall.)
But while their actual lives are violent enough, the members of Ben’s family have no stomach for violent video games. When they watch their cousins play a brutal fighting game, most of Ben’s kids look on, horrified. Only Rellian, a boy of about 12, seems intrigued.
Rellian brandishes a knife at his father before turning it on some unsuspecting wood. Jack fires an arrow into a door. Ben is manhandled out of a church service by security guards. Zaja describes several horrific injuries. There’s discussion of Leslie’s suicide.
Ben may try to protect his children from the crass, cruel world in many ways, but foul language is fair game. He and his children use the f-word nearly 20 times without apology. We also hear the s-word at least twice, along with “b–ch,” “d–n” and “h—.” We hear “g–d–n” three times. Jesus’ name is abused five times, once paired with the f-word. Kids use an obscene gesture.
Ben refers to soda as “poison water,” but he allows his children to drink wine during a family dinner with Leslie’s sister—doling it out to even the youngest. Ben drinks wine far more than the rest of them, though, picking up a jug of it at a grocery store. He seems well past inebriated one evening when Bo comes to have an important heart-to-heart with him, and his impairment likely hampers the conversation.
While Ben and Leslie were ostensibly training their kids up in the mold of Plato’s “philosopher kings,” Ben also coaches them to lie and steal. Indeed, Ben’s kids make off with scads of groceries from a local supermarket while Ben pretends to have a heart attack in one of the aisles.
[Spoiler Warning] Ben and the kids finally allow Leslie to be buried … but later they return to their “mission” of dealing with her remains the way she wanted them to do. (Well, mostly.) Ben and the kids stealthily dig up Leslie’s body (the youngest saying that he doesn’t want his mother buried “under that bulls— [Christian tombstone] forever”) and take it back to Washington, where they cremate it.
When Ben asks Kielyr what she thought of Nabakov’s Lolita, she first answers that it’s … interesting.
Not good enough, Ben tells her. Interesting is a meaningless word—noncommittal and vague. When she follows that answer up with another single word—disturbing—he again tells Kielyr to dig deeper.
I found Captain Fantastic interesting. I found it disturbing. Now, to dig deeper.
Ben is a hard protagonist for me, as a Christian, to embrace. Ben sees Christianity as an instrument of “The Man,” the drug that Marx labeled the “opiate of the masses.” I see Christianity as not an opiate, but an antidote. It’s not a tool to hammer home cultural hegemony, but rather a force for countercultural transformation anchored in Jesus Christ, a way to better things and better worlds, both in this one and the one hereafter.
And therein lies the irony at the heart of Captain Fantastic: While Ben would look at me and see how little we have in common, I look at Ben and see deep similarities.
You see, Ben, in his own way, views the world as a fallen, broken thing. Corrupt. Twisted. And he seeks to raise his kids by teaching them a better way. He wants to protect them from consumerism and society’s base, selfish instincts. He wants to teach his children what (to his mind) our world should value, not what it does.
“I’m saving their lives,” he tells Leslie’s sister. “That’s what I’m doing.”
But even as he mocks Christians, he doesn’t realize how much he mirrors them. How many homeschooling parents would echo Ben, point by point? How many Christian moms and dads want to protect their children from the ills of this culture and instill in them a different set of values? The fact that you’re here, reading this review, suggests that you understand that it’s a broken, twisted world out there, and that there’s a better way to do things.
And perhaps that “better way” is what separates us. Because we know that way is found in only one direction: toward God.
Because God is missing here, Captain Fantastic falls short of its idealistic aspirations. Ben is refreshingly honest yet needlessly crass. He loves his children even as he teaches them to lie and steal. He searches for truth and wisdom in man, even though he himself would admit there’s precious little good to be found in us.
Captain Fantastic glories in the beauty of life and sacrifice. But because it rejects that critical element of God, this story’s hope for change ends in the same state that Leslie does: as a pile of ash.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.