Captain Not So Fantastic: Tempering the Romance of the Outsider

Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic (2016) explores the tensions between the purported freedoms of rural life and the alleged conformity of contemporary suburbia. The film has a central raison d’être in depicting the setting of the alternative lifestyle of the Cash family, but the film’s narrative trajectory is structured around an exploration of the strengths and pitfalls of this lifestyle that is premised on a rejection of ‘mainstream’ life.

Cultural historian Grace Hale argues that American culture grew fascinated with the trope of the ‘outsider’ in the postwar era, an appeal that survives to this day where an “oppositional stance only possesses meaning in relation to the beliefs and acts it stands against” (Hale 2011, 302). Her point is that people who take an “oppositional stance” always do so in relation to something else than themselves and their own values. This is arguably true in many cases but in relation to writer-director Matt Ross’ film Captain Fantastic (2016), her argument seems both accurate in one sense and somewhat misleading in another. This article examines exactly how Captain Fantastic engages with this prevalent cultural trope.

The film chronicles a series of life-changing experiences in a family lead by the intellectual leftist Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) who lives in the woods in the Pacific Northwest with his six children, Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell). The children are considerate of each other, their self-efficacy is through the roof, they speak intelligently when their father demands so of them, and they spend a lot of time together. The opening scene shows Ben proclaiming Bodevan’s entry into manhood after he has killed a deer in the forest, suggesting how this forest-dwelling family does not adhere to dominant norms in American society (fig. 1).

American Outsiders

Hale explores how many Americans have opposed various norms in their society, showing this prevalent cultural imaginary to exist both in literature – e.g. The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road – and in broader cultural spheres, e.g. within the conservative movement (Hale 2011, 13-48, 74-83, 132-159). Though the term is ambiguous, this notion is ultimately premised on the idea of place, of being on the inside or the outside of something. As Hale argues, the outsider “is a character or role characterized by opposition to whatever appears to be central in a particular time and place” (Hale 2011b). Hale is critical of the term’s fundamental ambiguity, arguing that this slipperiness “makes it possible for members of the political and economic elites to disavow their power. They are able to achieve legitimacy by casting themselves as outsiders despite their socio-economic status” (Hale 2011, 308). Socio-economically privileged individuals and groups can cloak themselves in outsiderhood in an effort to achieve the charisma of the outsider in American politics and society. This is why it is important to note that Hale’s book is a cultural history of how Americans have imagined outsiderhood rather than a social history of socio-economically marginalized groups in American history. Hale argues that:

The romance of the outsider spread throughout American culture because it provided an imaginary resolution for an intractable mid-century cultural and political conflict, the contradiction between the desire for self-determination and autonomy and the desire for a grounded, morally and emotionally fulfilling life.

Hale 2011, 3.

Hale’s point is that the idea of the outsider is able to deliver on two seemingly contradictory wishes: the desire to decide over yourself and the desire to live a “grounded, morally and emotionally fulfilling life” in connection with a social group. In Captain Fantastic, Ben has sought to achieve this by moving out to the forest with his family, which makes him the ideological heir to those counter-cultural idealists who rejected urban and suburban life and retreated to rural communes. These communards, argues historian Steven Conn, “used The City as a foil for the commune” (265). They envisioned the rural commune as the solution to what was wrong with urban life. Hale’s point that “opposition to whatever appears to be central in a particular time and place” as a central feature of the romance of the outsider was in this case articulated as an anti-urban sentiment. Captain Fantastic engages with this ruralist romance of the outsider and it is this cultural history that makes possible a contextualist understanding of how Captain Fantastic engages with this long-running trope in American history.

Upon first seeing the Cash family living in this untraditional way, the viewer must assume that the parents of this family at some point decided to adopt this alternative lifestyle. In this sense, Hale’s argument rings true; moving to the woods and adopting this lifestyle might well be seen as a rejection of mainstream society. But this lifestyle is not only a goodbye to something else, it is also something unto itself. This way of living and their way of spending all of their time together works for this family. And it does so regardless of the decision the parents once made to reject a ‘normal’ lifestyle. Indeed, Ross says that while the film was somewhat autobiographical about his own upbringing, he emphasizes that it is more “aspirational [and about] conscious parenting and about being present in the moment” as a father to his own children (Ross in Build 2016). In this sense, this family’s lifestyle is not ‘oppositional’ in the way that Hale defines it.

This lifestyle, then, does not only become meaningful as the antithesis to something else, but is presented as appealing due to the family being closely knit and due to the vast amounts of time they spend with each other. The film’s positive take on this lifestyle is shown through its emphasis on Ben’s strengths as a parent. But especially the film’s second act – which begins after the family drives out into the world – shows Ben’s parental shortcomings and challenges the viability of Ben’s lifestyle and ideology. This article argues that though Captain Fantastic exposes Ben’s failings as parent, the film does not denounce him or his ideologies. The film ultimately suggests that the only way forward for Ben and his family is for him to temper his views and parenting style.

A Touch of Self-Reflexivity

Though Captain Fantastic is not very self-reflexive, one particular scene foreshadows its critique of Ben. After having led a secluded lifestyle in the woods for years, the family is en route to attend the funeral of Leslie (Trin Miller), the children’s mother and Ben’s wife. While driving the family bus, Ben asks one of his daughters what she is reading. The teenaged Vespyr only reluctantly answers her father’s questions but, befitting of the intellectual training that Ben subjects his children to, she nonetheless agrees to give her interpretation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955):

Vespyr: There’s this old man who loves this girl, and she’s only 12 years old.

Ben: That’s the plot.

Vespyr: Because it’s written from his perspective, you sort of understand and sympathize with him, which is kind of amazing because he’s essentially a child molester. But his love for her is beautiful. But it’s also sort of a trick because it’s so wrong. You know, he’s old, and he basically rapes her. So it makes me feel. I hate him. And somehow I feel sorry for him at the same time.

Ben: Well done.

Vespyr’s comment on how Nabokov aligns the reader with – to put it very mildly – a morally dubious character is the film’s way of suggesting that Captain Fantastic also features a character that the viewer will come to have a conflicted view of. Because Captain Fantastic is focalized through Ben – “it’s written from his perspective” as Vespyr says of Lolita – viewers may come to “sympathize with him” (as Vespyr also says) too much. This moment of self-reflexivity foreshadows how Captain Fantastic will come to question Ben’s authority, charisma, and parenting style. At the beginning of the film’s second act, we are told that though we may sympathize – like Vespyr does with Lolita’s Humbert Humbert – with Ben right now, our judgment will be put to the test more and more as the film progresses. Ben is not the ‘Captain Fantastic’ that the title advertises (fig. 2).

Most of Ben’s children do not have a problem with their father, but the son Rellian does. The oldest son, Bodevan, is frustrated that his father does not approve of his ideas of going to college but he nonetheless proclaims that he has transitioned from being a Trotskyist to being a Maoist, which presumably is not a far cry from the political ideologies of his father, who, however, also embodies a 21st-century style of Emersonian self-reliance ideals. Bodevan feels restricted by his father’s beliefs, but he does not outright reject them. Rellian is much more critical of Ben.

An early scene shows the family playing music together out in the woods. The music starts off slow but Rellian does not conform to the tempo of the song and starts playing to a much faster beat to which the family subsequently conforms (fig. 3). The film uses an eye-line match between Rellian and Ben to emphasize the conflict between the two, suggesting that Rellian’s choice not to follow the beat is motivated by his view of Ben. The scene’s cinematography thus foreshadows Rellian’s rebellion against Ben later in the film. His critical stance towards his father is there from the start of the film but it becomes more pronounced later in the film. Their conflict, however, is rooted in the parents’ decision to move out to the forest several years earlier.


The film only briefly alludes to the family’s history. Ben explains to his brother-in-law Dave (Steve Zahn) that they have spent a decade in the woods and before that they had lived for five years on a farm. Leslie’s depression had started right after Bodevan was born and moving out to the forest was informed by Leslie’s illness. Before committing suicide, however, Leslie had been living in a treatment facility and was thus not with her husband and children when she died. If viewers were to focus on this fact it would appear that Ben was not there to support his wife when she was going through a very severe period in her depression, which ended in her suicide. That reading of Captain Fantastic would suggest that the film maybe lets Ben off the moral hook a bit too easily. But this backstory is important because it shows a long-running and strong commitment to helping Leslie and this fact may well affect how viewers evaluate Ben’s ethics. Though there is an ideological component to the family’s lifestyle (as suggested by how they observe “Noam Chomsky Day” in celebration of this famous leftist intellectual), the family’s lifestyle is in a way informed by a wish to help Leslie.

Though Leslie’s parents have instructed Ben and the children not to attend Leslie’s funeral, the family shows up anyway. Most of the mourners are dressed in black as per tradition but Ben and the children are dressed very untraditionally. Ben is wearing a bright red suit and his young daughter Zaja is even wearing a gas mask (fig. 4). At a first glance, these choices of costumes for the Cash family might resemble an ‘oppositional’ act that only becomes meaningful “in relation to the beliefs and acts it stands against” in the words of Grace Hale. The costumes surely do signal how the family’s values run counter to mainstream society and, especially, Leslie’s parents. Indeed, Ben’s red suit might be interpreted as a form of provocation to the other people attending the funeral. But very early on in the film we get to see a wedding picture of Ben wearing that suit while sitting in a small boat together with Leslie. Ben’s attire is therefore not an oppositional provocation, just a contrast to the other mourners. Wearing this suit is a symbolic gesture that speaks to the love he and his wife shared. It is a symbolic gesture to Leslie and a call back to a time when their lives had not been transformed by her illness.

The Shift

After having attended Leslie’s funeral, the conflict between Ben and Rellian worsens and Rellian decides to live with his maternal grandparents. The grandparents, Jack (Frank Langella) and Abigail Bertrang (Ann Dowd), represent everything that Ben rejects: materialism, conformity, suburbia, and Ben consequently sends his daughter Vespyr to ‘free’ Rellian. Vespyr climbs up on the roof to break into her grandparents’ house. While initially presented as a humorous scene, the tone of the film shifts dramatically when a roof tile breaks, causing Vespyr to lose her footing. She falls to the ground and a medium close-up reaction shot of Ben signals how much he realizes at that very moment the fact that he is responsible for letting his daughter be injured (fig. 5).

Vespyr’s siblings run to her help but Ben is frozen. While the film has been sympathetic to some of Ben’s ideals and lifestyle choices so far, it here shifts to show Ben’s inadequacy as a father. He is not a “child molester” as Vespyr calls Humbert Humbert from Lolita, but he does put his daughter at risk. He fails his responsibilities as a parent.

Captain Fantastic shifts gears, abandoning the upbeat tone that the film has embodied up until this point. This instance of peripeteia invites the film’s viewers to recalibrate not just their view of Ben and his actions but maybe also of themselves. If they, like Ben, had found it amusing that Vespyr was crawling on the roof trying to ‘free’ her brother, Captain Fantastic challenges such viewers to take a look in the mirror and rethink their fascination with Ben. Viewers will have to consider if they had let themselves be charmed by Ben’s charisma and untraditional parenting style. It is this scene and this change of narrative trajectories that is foreshadowed when Ben and Vespyr discuss Nabokov’s novel earlier in the film.

Ben subsequently accepts that he was responsible for Vespyr’s injury, and informs his children that he wants them to live with his parents-in-law. But his children do not want to be separated from their father, from their only surviving parent:

Ben: You can all be safe here.

Vespyr: But we want to live with you.

Ben: I almost got you killed, sweetie.

Vespyr: That was an accident! The tiles just cracked.

Due to Vespyr’s strong sense of belonging and loyalty to her father, she downplays Ben’s wrongdoing. But Ben’s conclusion is clear. His and his wife’s lifestyle had been “A beautiful mistake, but a mistake. I thought it would help her. I thought she’d get better out here, you know. But it was too much. And I knew it. I did. I knew.” The young Nai does not understand, asking “Why can’t we just stay with you?” “Because if you do”, the gloomy father ponders, “I’ll ruin your lives.” Ben accepts responsibility for his past wrongs but the tragic thing here is that he is about to commit another wrong – that of leaving his children just as they are overwhelmed by mourning their mother. They need Ben at this point, regardless of what crisis he is going through (fig. 6).

Family Ties

When Ben drives away to be alone, leaving his children in the care of their maternal grandparents-in-law, he is experiencing complete anagnorisis. In other words, he has realized a truth about himself that he had not been aware of. Captain Fantastic, however, has the children to go after Ben, which leads to Ben’s reconciling with them just as he had revised his fundamental ethos and had ostracized himself from his children. The tragic thing is that when Ben realizes that he has failed as a parent he finds another way to fail his children. The grieving children are the strong ones here even though it is Ben’s job to be there to support them. Regardless of this double failure on Ben’s part, it is the children’s care for Ben that gives him the support he needs in his crisis. They pull him through, and it is because of the children that the family is able to stay together despite Ben’s failings as a parent.

Later on, the family sings and dances around a funeral pyre in remembrance and celebration of their mother/wife. Rellian joins in and helps play their rendition of the Guns N’ Roses song “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” indicating that he has recommitted to the family and that the conflict between him and Ben has been resolved (fig. 7). This is a direct reversal of the music scene at the start of the film. This scene suggests that Rellian is okay with the ideals that the family lives by but that he was critical of how Ben managed those ideals. Rellian’s rejection of Ben was therefore never a wholesale dismissal of the ideology Ben represents. Rellian seems critical of how Ben was not there for his wife and their mother. Rellian also seems to resent how Ben does not come to help Rellian when he injured himself while rock climbing. These examples demonstrate Ben’s shortcomings as a husband and a father and show him as being too extreme, both in the eyes of Rellian and in the eyes of Captain Fantastic. These inadequacies are rooted in his quixotic ideals but it is not the ideals themselves that Rellian rejects.

As mentioned earlier, Ben also has a conflict with his oldest son, Bodevan. The film’s opening scene shows the family tracking and hunting down a deer, which Bodevan ends up killing. This occasion is a rite of passage in the family and Ben proclaims that Bodevan is now a man: “Today the boy is dead. And in his place … is a man.” Ben, however, later becomes upset when he learns that Bodevan has applied for enrollment at – and been accepted by – Ivy League universities like Harvard, Brown, and Princeton. Even though Ben has already proclaimed solemnly that Bodevan is an adult, he takes issue with Bodevan’s life choices and tries to manage his future trajectory in life for him. Ben’s ideology is central here – not Bodevan’s independence, suggesting that Ben has only in principle accepted Bodevan as an adult (fig. 8).

When we see Bodevan flipping through acceptance letters from several universities, a train comes thundering through the scenery in the background. Interrupting the tranquility of the scenery, the noise of the train is metaphorical for how the outside world is now urgently imposing itself on Ben’s and the children’s lives. It is not only Leslie’s death that sets things in motion. However, in the final scene of the film, Ben is sending Bodevan off into adulthood with some sympathetic advice about how to conduct himself in relation to future sexual partners. Only then does Ben really see and accept Bodevan as an adult. Ben’s two proclamations of Bodevan’s entry into adulthood thus bookend the film. The first proclamation was half-hearted and the second is sincere, which speaks to the transformation of Ben as a character.

Marginality and Excess

All this speaks to how we may understand Captain Fantastic’s position in relation to its cultural context. Literary scholar Jane Tompkins argues that texts do “cultural work” and that their plots and characters provide “society with a means of thinking about itself, defining certain aspects of a social reality which the authors and their readers [share], dramatizing its conflicts, and recommending solutions” (Tompkins 1985, 200). Captain Fantastic is a cautionary tale and its depiction of Ben’s lifestyle may inform considerations of, say, how to be a better parent in contemporary society but, as mentioned, the film is quite critical of Ben.

At the end of the film, Ben and his children continue to live in a rural setting, but they have (re)committed to civilization in several ways. But Ben is only able to recommit and return to his family because Vespyr is not severely injured from her fall. The emergency room doctor (Louis Hobson) who treats Vespyr tells Ben that “I mean, if this had happened just a few millimeters lower, we’d be talking about death or paralysis.” Walking away virtually unscathed from a nearly fatal accident borders on the unlikely. Her full recovery from this severe fall seems so unlikely that it almost resembles a deus ex machina. Had Vespyr been killed or paralyzed from her fall, this would have been a much darker film and its comedic and light-hearted elements would be dramatically recontextualized. Having Vespyr walk away from this accident is a crucial plot point that enables the film to ultimately let Ben return to the fold. This is important for Captain Fantastic’s cultural work. The film wants to expose Ben’s excesses but it still wants to root for him.

A useful contrast for thinking about Ben’s flirtation with the excesses of self-marginality is Sean Penn’s biopic Into the Wild (2007). Though based on the real-life story of Christopher McCandless’ journeys in the early 1990s, the film arguably explores a parallel dynamic to that of Captain Fantastic. Into the Wild shows how McCandless’ (Emile Hirsch) self-marginalization is never enough. He keeps pushing further out from the confines of established society, but when he reaches an abandoned bus in the wilderness of Alaska and then wants to return to society, he is unable to do so.

Grace Hale argues that while psychological issues surely inform how people engage in oppositional acts “rebellion has a social and cultural dimension as well.” Hale emphasizes that McCandless “did not invent the [persona] in which [he] acted out [his] alienation.” And neither did he “invent the lens through which journalists and filmmakers interpreted” his life. And McCandless “did not invent the context in which many readers and viewers continue to be fascinated by” his life story (Hale 2011, 307). The point is that there surely were psychological reasons for why McCandless sought out something different than the suburban life he knew from his upbringing. But the fact that his alienation was translated into a life on the road as a self-styled “Supertramp” bears witness to how this rebellion was informed by, for instance, the writings of Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and Leo Tolstoy (Williams 2016, 105-113). Both Into the Wild and Captain Fantastic tap into the romance of the outsider to engage with it in critical ways.

McCandless goes too far, Into the Wild suggests. In that perspective, both films are cautionary tales; Captain Fantastic is structurally speaking a comedy in the sense that its plot is resolved in a positive way, while Into the Wild’s narrative trajectory ends in the tragic and untimely death of the young McCandless. While Into the Wild mourns McCandless, it ultimately shows that his fascination with the extreme and the margins of society was too strong. Captain Fantastic lauds Ben for recommitting to society. It does so by letting Vespyr survive. This plot point allows Ben to return with only a scathed conscience to live with.

Suburban Visions

Though Captain Fantastic exposes several of Ben’s shortcomings, it nonetheless sympathizes with several of his political ideas, for instance with regards to his ruralist rejection of suburbia. Edmund Bacon, a leader of Philadelphia’s Planning Commission in the postwar era, once noted that “It can safely be said that the overwhelming majority of the American people operate on the basis of the suburban way of life as the only acceptable goal for all right-minded people” (26). But suburbia, which today is home to more than half of the U.S. population (Boehm and Corey 2015, 335), has been also “ridiculed as banal, homogenizing, and, more insidiously, as places that [produce] a dangerous conformity” (Conn 2014, 229), a tradition that Captain Fantastic echoes.

Ben’ sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), is skeptical of how Ben is raising his children. Seemingly against everything Ben believes in, Harper chooses to voice her skepticism by suggesting that Ben and Leslie aren’t learning the material they should. Harper here symbolizes a firm belief in ‘mainstream society.’ However, when Ben asks Harper’s son, Justin (Elijah Stevenson), what the Bill of Rights is the high schooler’s answer borders on ignorance. But Zaja, Ben’s 8-year-old daughter, has both memorized the first amendment and is able to explain in her own words the meaning of the Bill of Rights. Zaja’s academic prowess is an invitation to root for Zaja and Ben’s parenting style (fig. 9).

One could argue, however, that Matt Ross is overstating his point here. Justin’s 13-year-old younger brother Jackson (Teddy Van Ee) is even more clueless regarding the Bill of Rights than Justin is. Ross could have written the scene so that at least Justin was able to give a somewhat intelligent answer – but maybe without the same level of comprehension and reflection that Zaja demonstrates. Making Zaja look so much better in comparison with her suburban cousins is fundamentally a humorous way of emphasizing the strengths of Ben’s parenting. When the Cashes pull away in their bus, the youngest child Nai is smiling and waving only to see the two bratty teenagers giving her the finger. The brothers are not just ill-educated, they are also unsympathetic. This unflattering portrayal of the suburban brothers invites viewers to see the positive aspects of Ben and Leslie’s views, and it aligns Captain Fantastic with Ben’s anti-suburban views.

The film thus showcases Ben to be a competent parent who – in comparison with his sister’s family – has made some good parenting choices. This is another way of showing how we can root for Ben and his parenting style. If some viewers then accept Captain Fantastic’s invitation to feel allegiance with Ben, what are those viewers then to do with that feeling of allegiance when they realize that Ben’s parenting style ultimately leads to him endangering Vespyr?

Flaws, Ideals, and ‘Opposition’

Viggo Mortensen argues that Captain Fantastic depicts all the families in the film in a nuanced way: “That family model [of the Cash family] and the other ones you see in the movie. None of them are perfect. They’re all flawed. They’re all flawed people” (Mortensen in Build 2016). Mortensen says this while expressing that Captain Fantastic is not some one-sided leftist fantasy and stresses that the film does not deride other lifestyles. It is important to remember that Mortensen is making this point in the context of promoting the film to potential viewers. He and Matt Ross have no interest in ‘scaring off’ potential viewers that might not themselves be attracted to the political position that the film itself is sympathetic to.

Mortensen’s reading, however, is a fair one when one thinks of the scene where Ben gets into a heated argument with his father-in-law Jack about what Ben’s parenting style is doing for/to his children. Jack tells Ben that “Even if they make it through whatever you are doing to them, they’re gonna be totally unprepared for the real world” to which Ben merely replies that he “happen[s] to think the opposite is true.” Up to this point, Captain Fantastic has featured several scenes that do, indeed, support Jack’s argument. When they are leading secluded lives in the forest, the children do not experience that they are ill-equipped for life in the outside world. But their trip out into ‘the real world’, prompted by Leslie’s death, shows the shortcomings of Ben’s parenting style.

When Bodevan talks to a girl (Erin Moriarty) at a campground, he is socially awkward and even proposes to the girl whom he has just met. Luckily, the girl and her mother (Missi Pyle) just think that he is kidding, sparing Bodevan the embarrassment. Bodevan lacks basic interpersonal skills in relation to talking to girls his age who are not part of his own family. Bodevan will never learn how to talk to potential romantic interests as long as he only lives with his family. When Ben sets up the challenges that he wants his children to meet, he is able to equip them with the skills they need to succeed. But there are so many aspects to life that the children are not being prepared for in terms of living in the outside world. This shows one inadequacy of Ben and Leslie’s childrearing style.

This informs the family’s reentry to society at the end of the film. At the start of the film, the family lives in the woods and sleeps in primitive cottages, and they have a bus that they amicably call Steve. The final scene shows the family to have settled down in a small house in the countryside. When Ben decides to turn his life around he still imagines the good life in a rural setting, which places him as the ideological descendant of 1960s hippies. In that decade, the United States experienced what historian Steven Conn calls a “back-to-the-land exodus” where “disillusioned hippies and activists […] retreated to rural communes” (9). In a massive rejection of the city as the place of the good life, this group of people “celebrated the communal and the tribal. They headed for the hills and went back to the land” (257). Ben’s vision of the good life for him and his family thus embodies this leftist strand of anti-urbanism that, according to Steven Conn, is a pervasive phenomenon in American culture.

Steve has now been ‘decommissioned’ and has been transformed into a chicken coop, metaphorically suggesting that the family has chosen to take root in the world in a more settled way. The film can hardly express in a more concrete way that this solution to Ben and the children’s living arrangements is permanent. This shows Captain Fantastic’s emphasis on the need to temper the excesses of Ben’s lifestyle choices. At the end of the film, he and his family continue to embrace a rural lifestyle though in a somewhat different way than at the start of the film. As Conn argues “when Americans have imagined utopia, their vision is always rural” (308), a tradition that Captain Fantastic continues. This tradition of imagining a rural utopia connects intimately with how Matt Ross, in the interview quoted earlier, said that the film has an “aspirational” quality to it, rather than stressing any autobiographical element in the film. The aspirational value in Captain Fantastic is the social cohesion that the rural setting is able to provide for the Cash family.

At the end of the film, nothing suggests that the family has rejected Ben’s critical view of parts of modern life, but Ben now sends his children to school where they will be able to acquire the social skills they never learned while living by themselves in the woods. Given the brevity of this ending, it remains somewhat unclear just how much Ben has revised his ideas about society but something has definitely changed. While on their way to Leslie’s funeral Ben encourages his children to steal food from a supermarket, which shows how ‘oppositional’ he was at that point in time. At the end of the film, we might infer that Ben’s revelations about his wrongs as a parent have led him to leaving that sort of behavior behind him. He ends up changing. Ben finds a ruralist compromise that lets his family reintegrate into society without conforming to its negative facets (fig. 10).

The film ends with the children and Ben all sitting calmly around a table in their house. By showing the family to interact in a stress-free and amicable way, Captain Fantastic embraces how Ben has tempered his parenting style after showcasing the shortcomings of this idealist father. The film warns of Ben’s excesses but retains that Ben’s and the children’s lifestyle is a viable one. The film rejects the notion that their ‘oppositional’ or, rather, untraditional lifestyle “only possesses meaning in relation to the beliefs and acts it stands against.” The film’s ending suggests that Ben does not just strike the pose of the anti-authoritarian rebel that is only meaningful in relation to something else. His ethos emphasizes a lifestyle that surely is untraditional but which is meaningful in and of itself: a healthy lifestyle for a tight-knit family in the countryside. Ben continues to embrace a counter-cultural lifestyle; one that is less radical, but one that Captain Fantastic presents as viable.

* * *



  • Captain Fantastic (2016), dir. Matt Ross.
  • Into the Wild (2007), dir. Sean Penn.


  • Bacon, Edmund. 1963. “The City Image.” In Man and the Modern City, edited by, Elizabeth Geen, Jeanne R. Lowe, and Kenneth Walker, 25-32. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Boehm, Lisa Krissoff and Steven H. Corey. 2015. America’s Urban History. London: Routledge.
  • Build Series. 2016. “Viggo Mortensen & Matt Ross On “Captain Fantastic”” Interview by Ricky Camilleri. AOL. July 13.
  • Conn, Steven. 2014. Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hale, Grace. 2011. A Nation of Outsiders. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hale, Grace. 2011b. “Why are today’s rebels Republicans?The Political Bookworm (blog), The Washington Post, February 8.
  • Tompkins, Jane. 1985. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Williams, Deane. 2016. The Cinema of Sean Penn: In and Out of Place. New York: Wallflower Press.