When Captain Fantastic was being sold to the public last summer, the campaign tried to make the case for a story about an unconventional family going through the tragic loss of its wife and mother. It’s so much more than that.
The story centers around Ben (Viggo Mortensen), the father of a group of kids whom he’s raising out in the woods, teaching them how to hunt, how to read and understand philosophy and complex mathematics and more, all almost completely cut off from the rest of civilization. It’s what he and his wife wanted. She, it turns out, has been in the hospital suffering from severe depression and has recently killed herself. Her parents hate Ben and everything he stands for, blaming him for her illness and they ban him from coming to her funeral. He and the kids flout that request, though, and for the first time the tribe is out in what we all consider civilization needing to adjust to normal conventions that we take for granted but which they have no context for or experience with.
The campaign back in the first half of 2016 coming out of its debut at Sundance last year focused on the quirks and eccentricities of Ben and his family. The idea was to sell it as a sort of fish-out-of-water story about this highly unusual family that’s so odd and now is *shocked* to find hot dogs and soda on the menu at a diner. It almost took a contemptuous look at the family.
That’s not the attitude of the movie itself, though. While those moments are in there, of course, they’re all part of a larger story that’s only hinted at slightly in the marketing, the fact that book-learning can’t fully replace experiences and the rebellion by some of the kids to Ben’s decisions and style as they get more exposure to what else is out there. There’s a whole dynamic between the family that’s completely missing from the marketing campaign but which forms the most interesting and engaging elements of the movie itself.
I get why the decision to focus on the one thing over the other was made. It’s easier to sell quirk than it is a complex coming-of-age tale about the virtues of both being inside and outside the system. But the movie is significantly weightier in its commentary on society and family than the trailer and the rest of the campaign might have led some in the audience to believe, particularly with the key art that shows Ben in his bright red leisure suit and the young boy wearing a gas mask. The campaign made it seem like a variation on the Little Miss Sunshine theme when in fact it’s a much different and in many ways more affecting story.