Navigating the tricky waters of parenthood with Matt Ross, writer-director of ‘CAPTAIN FANTASTIC’

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CAPTAIN FANTASTICPreston Barta // Editor

Parenting is a massive obligation that is troubled with apprehension. Deciding how to raise your children and where to raise them is a constant game of risk. However, the key, according to filmmaker Matt Ross, is balance.

Ross, who you may recognize from his work in front of the camera in HBO’s SILICON VALLEY or 2004’s THE AVIATOR, steps on the other side with CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, which he both wrote and directed.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Photo courtesy of Erik Simkins / Bleecker Street.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Photo courtesy of Erik Simkins / Bleecker Street.

The film tells the story of a devoted father (Viggo Mortensen) who gave up his professional career to moves his family to a remote location in the Pacific Northwest where they can live in harmony with the natural world.

He spends every waking moment educating and training his six children by using his knowledge of the world, books he has handy and the freedom to explore who they are.

But then tragedy strikes, and the family must venture outside their self-created paradise to face the challenges of modern civilization, which doesn’t exactly understand their ways.

Every parent wants their child to lead a happy and fulfilling life, and CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is an astonishing exploration of this notion. It’s one of those rare films that comes along and burrows in your brain. Not in the mind-marathon-running manner that Christopher Nolan (INCEPTION) employs, but in a means that causes you reflect and question your own life values.

“I am very self-critical. I always believe the things I do are deeply flawed,” quipped Ross, who we rang up during a promotional stop in San Francisco. “When you see others have [a cinematic] experience, hopefully both an emotional and intellectual one— that’s what I want when I go to the movies. That’s the drug I’m chasing when I make one. So if I am providing that for others in any way, I am enormously gratified.”

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC may sound like a crunchy granola type of narrative that preaches about the hardships of parenting. But it’s much more than that, and not a film that is solely catered towards parents.

“Whether you have kids of your own or not, or a child of a parent, you are part of a family,” Ross said. “I think younger audiences will connect with the anti-authoritarian streak that runs through the film. There’s a hopeful quality and punk rock aesthetic that I think they’ll find appealing.”

In the film, the family is not only trying to question authority, they are trying to build a better world. But as a parent, one has to draw a line between doing too much and too little, and deciding whether or not the length this family goes to is right or wrong is completely up to the viewer. The idea of the film is to put the questions out there and to get us thinking about them.

“So much of it is exploration,” Ross said. “I don’t think my perspective [of parenting] changed [by doing this film]. To me, the film really is about balance. It’s not about giving up your values, but broadening or repairing them.”

Mortensen’s character is an undoubtedly flawed and complex, and in the movie he comes to realize his foibles. Because of his unorthodox parenting – while beneficial in many areas – his children lack the social skills they need to function in modern society.

“The real truth is that finding a happy medium is something that you deal with on an hourly basis with your kids. I feel very strongly that modernization is the answer to that,” Ross said.

Viggo Mortensen, Charlie Shotwell, Samantha Isler and director Matt Ross discuss a scene on set. Photo courtesy of Erik Simkins / Bleecker Street.

Viggo Mortensen, Charlie Shotwell, Samantha Isler and director Matt Ross discuss a scene on set. Photo courtesy of Erik Simkins / Bleecker Street.

Ross spent a portion of his upbringing living in California communes that were started with the help of his mother. While the story itself is not autobiographical, much of the individual scenes are lifted from Ross’ experiences.

“I lived in very rural communities in the 80s. It wasn’t a hippie commune, but they were definitely alternative living situations that my mother started with some people,” Ross said. “Some of that is autobiographical, but I chose to raise my family in a town.”

Even though Ross chose to raise his family in the city, he controls how much technology is exposed to his children.

“My nine-year-old plays video games, but I also expect him to read and do activities. It’s not about vilifying one thing; it’s, again, about balance,” Ross said. “It’s a problem if your child is playing video games all day because they’re living in a virtual world and not in a real one. But with some organization, you can expose them to the positive as well as the negative.”

Teaching your children honesty is one of the biggest strengths of the film, and it’s something that Ross also holds in high regard in his household.

“It’s up to the parent to decide what’s appropriate to discuss with your child,” Ross said. “I’m certainly not saying there is a right or wrong way to go about it, but in my house I’m open and teach honesty.”

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC doesn’t encourage audiences to literally drop everything and live in the forest. It’s a film that doesn’t provide clear answers to raising a family. It merely asks questions and causes one to step back and reflect on the material goods in our lives that are important.

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is playing in limited release in select cities.
Dallas: The film opens at the Angelika Dallas on Friday, July 15.

Feature Photo: Actor Charlie Shotwell and director Matt Ross discuss a scene on the set of their film CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Photo courtesy of Wilson Webb / Bleecker Street.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.