Vol. 1 No. 1 (2023)
General Section

Family in the Woods: Countercultural Utopia in Captain Fantastic (2016)

Károly Pintér
Pázmány Péter Catholic University
Pázmány Papers vol. 1. nr. 1.

Published 12/18/2023 — Updated on 06/13/2024


  • American studies,
  • film studies,
  • utopian studies,
  • wilderness,
  • American Adam,
  • H. D. Thoreau,
  • Walden,
  • noble savage


Captain Fantastic, an independent drama written and directed by Matt Ross in 2016, and starring Viggo Mortensen, addresses several themes that are central to utopian studies: the viability of an intentional community removed from mainstream civilization, the possibility of living in harmony with nature, as well as the ambition to inculcate alternative cultural values by a radical educational program. The main character, Ben Cash, decided to raise his entire family of 6 kids in the dense forests of Washington state. While training them to survive under extreme circumstances in the wilderness, he also undertakes their entire education, encouraging individual thinking and a strongly critical attitude to mainstream American society and culture. The sudden suicide of his wife forces Ben to return to ‘normal America’, confronting him with both the consequences of his parental decisions and his potential responsibility in his wife’s death.

The essay interprets the movie in the context of the American utopian tradition, particularly its individualist variety exemplified by the myth of the American Adam and the ideas of Thoreau's Walden (1854). Captain Fantastic fulfils a crucial generic criterion by skillfully satirizing some of the characteristic features and attitudes of mainstream American culture through the eyes of the children who experience it for the first time, subjecting the conventional ‘American utopia’ to a trenchant criticism. At the same time, it also questions the possibility of radical alterity: can a single family defy society by re-enacting a mythical American pattern and abandoning civilization to raise their kids in the woods? Do parents have the right to experiment on their children after their utopian hopes of opposing American capitalist society have been dashed? The clash of utopias is ultimately resolved by Ben's decision to admit his responsibility for his wife's mental illness and death and to give up the backwoods utopia and settle on a farm, conforming to another fundamental American symbol: the pastoral ideal of the garden.