Captain Fantastic and the Question of Role Models

Writer-director Megan Griffiths on Matt Ross' family drama Captain Fantastic, how to raise kids right, and her late mother.

I’ve recently been finding myself thinking a lot about parenting, which I guess could be considered a bit strange since I am not a parent myself. But a growing crescendo of films, life experiences and news stories have been forcing me to reckon with just how much each of us are shaped by those that surround us in our formative years. It is the privilege that transcends race, sexuality, gender and socioeconomic boundaries — the privilege of access to good role models. It doesn’t matter where you come from or how much money you have, the people who are around during our earliest years — whether it be parents, extended family, teachers, faith leaders, camp counselors, or that dude who hangs out on the corner — shape us, for better or worse.

These thoughts began to circle for me again this week as I watched Captain Fantastic. In the film, a dad named Ben (played with a beautifully grounded humor and pathos by Viggo Mortensen) raises his six kids in the woods, teaching them to survive with only their wits and a Bowie knife. Each day they run and train, and each evening they read books by firelight and play instruments together. Depending on your perspective on things, it’s either idyllic or horrifying. As a parent, Ben has made the decision that his way is better, and he has the fierce intellect and ideals to defend that choice to any who would argue.

When the family is forced to re-engage with society to attend the mother’s funeral, the culture shock throws them all for a loop. Living off the grid has taught them everything about survival, but nothing about how to interact with the average American. The oldest, Bodevan (George MacKay), leads his younger siblings with confidence and charisma, but is struck utterly dumb when faced with a pretty girl who isn’t a relative. These children, who we just watched slit a deer’s throat in the woods, sit in wide-eyed horror at the intense violence of their cousins’ video games.

But these moments, in which the kids are so glaringly unprepared for the world they inhabit, are counterbalanced with moments when their alternative training triumphs. When Ben’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) tries to convince him that he’s harming his children by keeping them out of school, Ben pits his seven-year-old daughter, Zaja (Shree Crooks), against Harper’s teenaged sons in an intellectual cage match, which she easily wins. In another scene, Ben’s unadorned honesty about his wife’s death stands in stark contrast to the halting and placating misinformation disseminated by his brother-in-law (Steve Zahn) in his efforts to protect his sons’ innocence (which is so clearly long gone).

Captain Fantastic raises the question of the morality and ethics of parenting, and director Matt Ross gamely plunges into all the nuance and complexities of that debate. What really is best for these kids? Are the dangers of their survivalist lifestyle grave enough to make it worth a return to “normal” parenting, which in Ben’s mind means tacitly accepting all of the greed and ignorance that comes with mainstream American life in 2016? Would shopping at Walmart and knowing what Nikes are really serve the kids better, ultimately, than being able to recite Dostoyevsky and skin a deer? Is it more important for them to be able to talk to other children their own age — to flirt, to have fun, to be kids — than it is for them to live out ideals that maybe aren’t even theirs in the first place?

We don’t get much sense of Ben’s upbringing, but we come to understand that his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) was raised very differently. Her stern parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) are traditional, affluent and religious. You get a clear sense of what she was rebelling against when you see their home, called out even by the kids as a “vulgar display of wealth” and an “unethical use of space.” Ben and Leslie wanted a different life for their children. They were intellectuals, Chomskyites, dissenters who wanted no part in the ongoing corporatization of the planet. They devised a plan to escape a world so at odds with their ideologies, and escape it they did. Until Leslie’s death disrupted the status quo and put everything back up for debate.

When you see parents make choices based on principles and integrity, it’s all the more tragic when occasionally those choices don’t work out as planned. It’s hard to root against someone who cares as much as Ben, who aches for his children’s success in a way that informs every decision he makes around their care and rearing. Many don’t have this. So often kids are left to learn on their own, to take what suits them from the world and not consider their own impact. Some are woefully neglected, or even purposefully encouraged to hate and devalue, often learning by example to consume and to discard thoughtlessly.

I lost my mother this year, which is a huge part of why this role-model question has been on my mind. She was my hero, and every good thing that exists in me exists because of her and my dad. I was fortunate enough to be raised attentively, humanely and empathetically by two people who told me I could be exactly the person I dreamed of being. My mom was a social worker who spent her entire career with children who weren’t so lucky, who were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. She worked every day with kids who had been forgotten, cast aside, bullied and violated. The specter of that alternate life, though miles away from my reality, occasionally invaded my young mind due to its proximity in my mother’s thoughts. The fact that I knew what could have been, made me all the more grateful for the good-hearted, intelligent people who surrounded me.

The question of whether Ben is a good role model pervades this film. There’s no doubt he’s strong, idealistic and wise, but he’s also hard, reckless, and completely devoid of boundaries. The film also calls into question the grandparents, who want to raise the children more traditionally, with all the trappings of typical privilege (money, opportunity, etc.). Yes, they are unyielding, severe, and entitled, but they also genuinely care for the children, and when they are able to spend time with them, their love shines brightly. There is no “bad guy” in the film. It just isn’t that simple.

Captain Fantastic, viewed in the context of all the chaos of today’s world, but also through the lens of the eternal optimist that my mother raised, left me with this conclusion: It’s not values, political principles or religious dogma that make someone a good role model. It’s simply recognizing that kids need guidance and care, and committing to nurturing them every day for as long as they need you. Sometimes things will go wrong, but ultimately it’s about the trying, the learning, and the willingness to try again.

Megan Griffiths is an independent director, writer and producer. Her most recent film, Lucky Them (starring Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp), premiered at Toronto in 2013 and was released by IFC. Her previous film, Eden, premiered at SXSW 2012, where it won the Audience and Emergent Female Director awards and was picked up by Phase 4. Prior to that, Megan’s film The Off Hours, premiered at Sundance in 2011, received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for cinematography, and secured distribution through Film Movement.