Written by Matt Ross (128 pages)
Captain Fantastic is a story about Ben and his children, who live mostly self-sufficiently in a forrest somewhere in Washington. Ben’s wife is hospitalized, and he soon finds out she has committed suicide. Ben is reluctant to attend her funeral, but he eventually gives in to his children’s stubborn desire to hit the road and go to the funeral. The story is then about Ben navigating a world from which he has decided to abstain and his kids learning about a world they’ve never known. Ben’s obscure and possibly ill-conceived parenting methods are put under a microscope and his faith in the life he and his deceased wife constructed is tested.
Ben and his wife Leslie built a life through which they could make a kind of utopia for their children. They hunt for and grow their own food, they are incredibly literate (Ben makes sure they think critically and don’t just regurgitate facts), and they are all extremely athletic. The kids are insightful, thoughtful, intelligent, artistic and curious about their world. This curiosity means they want to see the world that they have been told is improper and poorly cared for.
Act 1: (pages 1 – 24.5)
In the first part of act 1, we learn about this life and Ben’s relationship with his children. He encourages them to formulate plans, sometimes referred to as missions. He has high expectations for his kids.
The inciting incident is the moment that instigates the rest of the plot. On page 11, Ben learns of his wife’s suicide. He tells his children, not hiding any of the ugly truth about her death.
The kids are sad, understandably, and they tell him they want to attend the funeral. Ben resists, which makes sense because the second half of act 1 (sequence 2) is when you have the deliberation. Ultimately the characters will hit the road, but not without debating the issue.
The locking in moment, to end act 1 and thrust us into act 2, is when Ben decides they will go to the funeral because, accepting the kids’ wishes. This occurs in an interesting way with the following exchange:
When Ben says “the powerful control the lives of the powerless,” it seems to mean that he controls the kids. We’ve seen him be in absolute control of the children; they respond to him urgently and with precision whenever he asks a question. He is their father, their teacher, their drill instructor, their fight instructor, their driver, essentially their dictator. In an overt way, his treatment of them is similar to what he claims the world tries to do to people, but he doesn’t realize this except that subconsciously he does. Because he changes the meaning of that one sentence when he says “FUCK THAT,” and heads into town. He’s saying “we” are oppressed by the powerful, showing that he considers himself and his kids to be on the outside, understandably. But again, this sets up his own character flaw, he’s too controlling.
Also, the image of a fork in the road is a very clear way of showing a character decision. The only more obvious image to represent the “lock in” or “point of no return” that typically ends the first act is to have a character walk through a door which closes and locks behind them.
ACT 2: (page 25 – 95)
Ben and his kids have hit the road, united with a singular goal, to go to their mother’s funeral. What the kids don’t yet know is that Ben has read their mother’s will and has a plan to disrupt the funeral. The audience also doesn’t yet know this information. We just know he read the will, and it will influence his actions going forward.
On page 30 there is a scene in which Ben’s bus is pulled over, and the kids unite to help get rid of the cop. This establishes some sense of unity between them (after mostly antagonism regarding the wife/mother’s funeral) and builds on their relationship. Ben seems to catalyze the kids’ defensive behavior by telling them “this is your first real test.” So a subplot is Ben continuing to train the kids for a mission.
When Ben made the declaration that they would go to their mother’s funeral, he did so by reinforcing the idea that it’s them agains the world. The children are, in a sense, a defense barrier between Ben and the world.
As the story progresses, the kids seem ready to engage with the world, but Ben keeps them at a distance from the world even as it surrounds them. Going into civilization (even just a diner) is like a trek through the jungle. Every menu, tv, coca cola, etc. is a dangerous temptation in Ben’s eyes. He also continues to teach them and make sure they’re aware, like a military drill instructor. It’s clear that there’s more going on than just the journey to their mother’s funeral.
When Ben is unsatisfied with a diner’s meal options (he doesn’t consider it real food), he takes them to a market where he concocts a plan to fake a seizure, allowing the children to steal some food. It is just another mission, and it goes very well.
In the next scene, Ben has them analyze their mission and to see where they could have improved. It’s clear that these kids are smart, and Ben is constantly sharpening their minds like a knife. In this same scene, Ben surprises the kids (who only stole healthy food), by busting out a cake and announcing that they are celebrating Noam Chomsky Day early. The kids are excited.
As they hit the road, Ben’s oldest son, Bo, tells him that he wants to go to college. This is another set up and it reinforces the idea that Ben’s lifestyle for his children is unsustainable. The kids are facing a number of temptations and college is yet another one. Bo tells Ben he can’t keep them around forever, but Ben still resists giving up control.
Every scene, in this way, is about the plausibility of Ben controlling his kids lives. Is it right? Is it possible? Some scenes reinforce the way he has raised his children and other scenes challenge his methods.
Ben and his kids then arrive at his sister, Harper’s home where she lives with her husband and two teenage boys. Her family is the stark contrast of Ben’s family, and their way of life challenges his own as it is tempting to the kids. They clash as you might expect such different families would clash. The kids have never heard of any of the lingo thrown around by the teenage boys, and Harper and her husband, Dave are appalled by Ben’s behavior (he seems to remember everything, particularly Dave’s cursing towards his wife one time) as well as the fact that his children carry weapons. He also serves his kids wine.
When Ben calmly reminds Dave that he called Leslie a “fucking bitch,” it hints at his sense of vengeance, which will pay off later. While Ben has a code he follows, he is still a little unhinged and gets carried away with the perceived fantasy of his life.
The next morning, after the dinner, Harper confronts Ben about how he’s ruining his kids lives. This is, of course, a challenge to his parenting method. This is the midpoint of the film because it reinforces the idea to the audience that Ben’s lifestyle is truly unsustainable. We are convinced that it’s getting more precarious (his children are taken with Grand Theft Auto and other video games), but Ben doesn’t seem to budge on the issue because he is a stubborn, controlling man.
The family hits the road and settles at a campground where Bo meets a girl named Claire. He is taken with her, but in their brief conversation we see just how unfamiliar he is with… really anything she talks about. Bo has no knowledge of pop culture, and these scenes highlight the distance between him and kids his age. Though Ben doesn’t witness this, this scene, like the Harper confrontation, works more on the audience and our perspective of Ben than it does on Ben directly. If each scene is a positive or negative on the sustainability of this life, this scene is a negative. We see what has become of Bo, and though it’s nothing bad, it’s not conducive to a life in the modern world. It’s like the script has its own mind. The script (or movie God) tries to put Ben in situations where he is forced to question if he’s doing the right thing with his children, but he’s so stubborn that the script turns to the audience, basically saying “SEE? he’s gotta spread his wings and fly.”
Ben and the kids arrive at the funeral. In act 1 it is established that Leslie’s parents, Jack and Abigail, do not like Ben. They blame him for their daughter’s problems and for taking her away. We also don’t yet know Leslie’s true feelings on the life she and Ben constructed. We’re led to believe that they built this life together, but we’ve never seen the wife. We only know that she committed suicide which suggests something was wrong. This is the real point which controls Ben’s opinions on this life. He is convinced that Leslie wanted their kids raised that way, and nothing will change his mind unless Leslie rose from the dead and told him to put the kids in school.
So they arrive at the funeral, and Ben interrupts the event to read Leslie’s will. She identified as Buddhist (the funeral is a Christian ceremony) and wanted to be cremated (the parents plan to have her buried). Ben is apprehended, and he’s not allowed to attend the burial.
Ben is prepared to do something crazy to crash the burial because he’s so committed to obeying Leslie’s will. Then Bo pleads for him to stop because they don’t want to lose him to. This gets to Ben, and he listens to his son.
Next, Rellian (Ben’s daughter) states her opposition to Bo about their father (“he made mom crazy.”) This scene works because we still don’t know what Leslie wanted. Rellian could be wrong, but she could also be right, and the doubt is enough.
At the midpoint, the question was established of ‘is Ben right?’ We knew his life was eccentric, but we got a sense that it might be detrimental to the kids, and in this conversation with Bo and Rellian we learn that yes, it is detrimental. Even if Rellian is wrong about her father making their mother crazy, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is definitely affecting Rellian.
Bo tells Ben about the college letters he sent. This offends Ben, but Bo says Leslie helped him with it, and now Ben is really hurt. This adds to the idea that Rellian might be right about their father making their mother crazy, since Leslie was doing this behind Ben’s back. It forces Ben to acknowledge his own stubbornness. Then they see that Rellian has run away again, which she occasionally does.
Bo suspects that Rellian went to their grandparents’ house, and when they get there, Jack confronts Ben (like Harper did) about the way he’s raising the kids. Ben uses the same argumentative technique as he did with Harper, pointing out how well-trained and taught his children are. Jack comments on how Ben taught his children how to steal (from the market early in act 2), having been informed by Rellian.
Ben resists backing down, but he’s forced to leave when Jack brings up his kids’ bruises (from their physical lifestyle) and threatens to call the cops on Ben, who will clearly believe the injuries are from child abuse. When Ben gets back to his bus (they drive a large bus), he formulates a plan with the rest of his children to go save Rellian, who they refer to as a “prisoner.” It’s yet another mission, and Ben will not stand down.
In the process of this mission, though, Vespyr (another child of his) falls and gets injured. Ben is forced to rush her to the hospital, and now he really has to acknowledge this lifestyle he’s created, since Vespyr could’ve died in the fall. The doctor points out to Ben that Vespyr is incredibly strong (unusually strong), and that if she were not so athletic, the injuries could have been worse and she might’ve died. So there is one small point in Ben’s favor, suggesting his lifestyle isn’t completely wrong.
After Vespyr’s injury, however, Ben finally admits defeat and takes his kids to stay with Jack and Abigail. He makes nice with them, conceding that maybe the kids should live with them from now on. It’s a moment of defeat…
Act 3: (page 96 – 128)
While Jack gets ready to leave, Rellian, the only child who was opposed to his father, finds a flaw in Jack’s and Abigail’s line of thinking. Rellian still thinks they will eventually cremate Leslie, as in her wishes, but Jack says she will stay buried. When Rellian tries to argue, as Ben had always encouraged a strong discussion, Jack shoots him down by reminding him that he’s a child and Jack is an adult.
The kids, now with Rellian’s support, organize their own mission. This is a payoff of everything Ben has taught them as they are now thinking on their own. Their mission is to save their dad (they cite death statistics following the death of a spouse) and to steal their mom’s body so they can cremate her.
Ben says goodbye to Jack and to his children and hits the road where he’s an emotional wreck. He also shaves his beard which is an easy but very good way to show character growth, simply because it’s so visual.
The kids, though, have hid on the bus and come out, once they’ve driven away. They approach Ben with their new plan, to save their mother by getting her body and cremating her.
At this point it’s tricky to know how the movie will end. On one hand, we like Ben and want the kids to end up with them, but we’ve also seen the flaws in his lifestyle and how disassociated from the real world the kids are.
Ben and the kids steal Leslie’s body, drive to the ocean where they hold a funeral and burn the body, and then they flush the ashes down a toilet at the Seattle airport (per her unorthodox wishes).
The family then says goodbye to Bo who has decided to go on a trip to the Philippines. It’s a definite sign of Ben willingly letting go. He has grown.
Reline makes Jack promise not to go after Ben and to let them live their life. Jack asks Ben not to disappear. He and Abigail would like to see them all for Thanksgiving, and Ben agrees it would be a good idea.
The story ends with Ben and the kids living a combination of their old life and a new life: the kids are enrolled in school, they live in a house, but they still maintain their old lifestyle in many ways (self-sufficient). Ben has let them start to go off on their own.
So the story is about Ben holding onto his kids. The inciting incident is like a stake plunged into their solid relationship. The kids want to leave, Ben resists, and ultimately they leave to go to the funeral.
At the midpoint, we (audience) see how irresponsible it is for the kids to not be in school even though Ben doesn’t see it himself.
Act 2 ends with Ben indeed losing his kids (though he decides to give them up, though he didn’t have much of a choice).
In act 3, the kids choose to remain with him, and Ben learns enough to compromise and give them the life he had been withholding from them.
What this story does well is give us a situation in which a guy home-schools his kids in the wood and start to convince us that it might not be a bad idea. It’s obvious the kids should be in school and interacting with kids their own age, but the script makes us look at it a different way.
The “dark night of the soul” is a moment in which everything goes wrong that we establish could go wrong at the end of act 1. For example, we know Ben could lose the kids by the end of act 1 because they have their own free will and have shown that they disagree with their father, particularly Rellian. It’s clear that a rift is forming that could jeopardize their relationship. But Ben holds on long enough. At the end of act 2, that rift is a canyon (at least between him and Rellian). Similarly, in Zootopia, act 1 ends with us knowing the risk that Judy could possibly not solve the case, and we know the stakes/consequences of her failing. Act 2 in that story ends with her solving the case, but it’s a false victory because the real danger is still out there.