To be a father is to hope and fear, push and pray, support and challenge. On our best days, we connect with our children with love they never doubt; on our worst, we let the intensity of our love get in the way of what our kids may actually need. And we rarely experience days in between.

For Ben Cash, fatherhood is a daily adventure in the woods. Literally. Years before, he and his wife chose to live outside conventional expectations to carve a unique existence off the grid. On a beautiful spot of land in the Pacific Northwest, Ben trains his six children to be physically agile and strong, intellectually curious and confident, emotionally consistent and controlled. As much as he gives his children, though, he remains blissfully unaware of everything they have missed. When his wife dies, not only do his children lose a mother, but the family risks separating the ties that bind. And they begin a cross-country search for what family actually means.

Like the best of movies about parenthood, Captain Fantastic reveals the flaws of its characters without apologizing for their behavior. Ben wants the best for his children. He believes removing them from the world frees them from pressure; he insists that designing what they study ensures their imagination; he maintains that building their physical endurance prepares them for whatever they may face. But the film isn’t so convinced that Ben is correct that it doesn’t dare to question the logic behind his choices. Sometimes any parent, no matter how well intended, can make wrong choices for the right reasons.

As a filmmaker, writer/director Matt Ross makes one correct choice after another. Rather than let the film look too lush, despite the beauty of the settings, he shoots in a natural way to suggest a grounded life. Rather than rely on dialogue to build characters, Ross uses a clear visual language to paint his picture. And rather than tie up loose ends in a tidy way, he raises as many questions as he answers. How much should we, as parents, let what we learn shade how we encourage our children? How much should our ambition for them influence what they pursue? As a film, Captain Fantastic works because Ross resists the temptation to solve all the issues he surfaces.

The cast helps, too. In Viggo Mortensen – in the performance of his career to date – Ross finds an actor who willingly reveals the father’s weaknesses without using those flaws to demonstrate his acting skills. Instead of showing us what this father feels, Mortenson disappears into the role, living this man’s determination and uncertainty, pain and joy, beliefs and questions. The actor makes us believe in the potential and limits of a man who so wants the best for his children that he can’t always find what is best.

Unlike many current movies, Captain Fantastic makes what it wants to say central to how it’s filmed. And Matt Ross makes what he wants us to feel and think more essential than what he has to say. The generosity of his moviemaking, and the authenticity of his movie, make this a necessary film for any summer.

Captain Fantastic
  • Content: High. A father’s story of persistence, daring and devotion comes to life in this daring look at one dad’s attempt to do what’s right for his kids.
  • Entertainment: High. As serious as the issues in the film, the crisp performances from an inspired cast celebrate the humanity of the characters.
  • Message: High. No matter how exaggerated this father’s situation, the lessons of his choices will be meaningful to any parent.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine what it means to be a parent, and what parents will do for children, makes a visit to the movies worthwhile.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older teenagers, talk about what parenthood can mean to parent and child.

(Captain Fantastic is rated R for “language and brief graphic nudity.” The film runs 118 minutes.)

Rating: 4.5 Popcorn Buckets

From the Archives: Running on Empty

The excellent new film Captain Fantastic reveals the hopes, fears and flaws that any father can bring to the challenge of raising children. The heart of this dad’s story brings to mind a powerful reminder that every family, no matter how happy they may appear, has issues to address.

Back in 1988, Sidney Lumet explored similar issues in Running On Empty, a meaningful look at how some issues may be simple, others complex. But Lumet knows that no family is perfect and no house in the neighborhood is as tidy as it may look on the outside. While some families deal with fundamental issues of safety and security, others face more serious considerations. They may pursue lives the rest of us can’t understand. For these, the questions of day-to-day life can so serious that answers seem to escape. And, yet, their hopes for their families are just as real as anyone else, no matter how well organized the house may or may not be.

Lumet take us inside a family where, sadly, routine does not exist. Years ago, the parents were involved, as young radicals, in bombing a building on a campus. When someone was killed, accidentally, the young couple had no choice but to flee. And all they have known, all the years since, is life on the run. Because of what happened so many years ago, they live as fugitives, with their children, on the run.

Whenever this family arrives in a town, using assumed names, they lead pretend lives, make artificial friendships, and search for roots until life crowds them. And when they fear someone may be too suspicious, they flee to the next destination, and the next assumed names, leaving no remnants behind. Because their lives must be so tidy they can’t afford to leave a mess. So they have no roots, no contact with family, no friends, and no real future. All they have is each other and the hope they can escape the realities of their challenge. Or that a miracle might happen.

What they do have, as well, is a brilliant son, a pianist, who is a brilliant piano player and, to their surprise, is offered an opportunity to study at Julliard. But, for a family on the run, any opportunity carries a high price tag. If he takes advantage of the opportunity, and steps outside the family zone of privacy, he may never have any contact with them again; they die in each other’s lives. Or, if he remains in the family, he may not pursue his dream, he must compromise his aspirations for the sake of his family. The film reminds us that, in real life, there are no easy answers and no escape from sadness regardless of the option someone may choose.

Running On Empty boldly examines its family dynamics, the legacy of decisions, and the pain of separation. The parents, even though one-time domestic terrorists, are deeply caring and loving, and live every day with the personal consequences of their actions. And the son, although driven to succeed, is so committed to his family he can’t imagine life without them.

This movie doesn’t take sides, nor does it toss out easy solutions. It simply makes us remember how difficult choices can be. You will be touched by your visit with this family. And, perhaps, look at your own family with a slightly different view, because not everyone has it so good.