Not being a parent myself, all I know is what I have been told: that in the first days, months, maybe even years of having a child, you might be stunned by the idea that you are wholly responsible for the life of an entire person. "It's incredible," a friend once murmured to me, hours after delivering her son. "They're actually going to let me take him home. Like I know what I'm doing." That's the thing about becoming a parent for the first time: All you can do is your very best, and what you believe is right. In the upcoming film Captain Fantastic (in limited release July 8), a mother and father decide to raise their six-kid brood in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, eschewing convention in an effort to impart something more valuable than the comfort of the status quo — namely, meaning. Together, they school the kids in philosophy, literature, how to humanely hunt a deer in the forest, and so much more. It is an idyllic corner of the world that Ben and Leslie Cash have carved out for their children. But there is a crack in the foundation. Leslie (Trin Miller) is ill. At the beginning of the film, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is alone with the kids in the forest while his wife is in treatment for severe depression. She commits suicide little more than three months into her in-patient treatment. That is where the journey really begins: Leslie's wealthy parents ban Ben from her funeral, threatening to call the police if he interrupts the ceremony. He then has to decide what kind of parent — what kind of person and partner — he will be, without his wife's wisdom to inform his next move. Understandably, the children are devastated by their mother's death, and by not being able to say goodbye. Leslie, a practicing Buddhist, has left behind explicit instructions for her remains: She wants to be cremated, her ashes flushed down the toilet in a highly public setting. (Trust me: When you watch the movie and get to understand the character, that last part will make perfect poetic sense. There is a wonderful wryness to this film that saves it from ever becoming too earnestly precious.) Perhaps not quite understanding what is at stake if they manage to fulfill their mother's wishes, the kids convince their dad to pilot the family bus — an actual school bus that has been outfitted like an RV — down to Arizona, so they can all say goodbye.
Along the way is where we get to see the real dynamics in this family: how close and raw they are with one another, and how tightly the kids are bound to each other, their father, and their dedication to the life philosophy with which they were raised. In one beautiful moment, during a pit stop at the home of Ben's sister (played by the brilliant Kathryn Hahn), all six children opt to camp in the backyard rather than sleep in the playroom that's been made up for their overnight. Their aunt is deeply perplexed, offended, even. But to the Cash kids, it seems so very obvious: Why would you sleep in a basement when you could spend the night outside under the stars? Captain Fantastic is full of lovely reminders about the pleasures of living simply. Thankfully, it's never heavy-handed with these lessons. The script is deeply nuanced and moving, and all the performances beautifully understated. The gorgeous cinematography is second only to the glorious scenery, all long desert shadows, crisp blue skies, and fading civil twilight. Where this film shows us its heart, though, is when one of Ben's daughters is involved in a dangerous accident, and he begins to question if he's actually capable of keeping his kids safe from harm — and whether or not he has actually been harming them himself all these years. It's a heartbreaking realization, catalyzed by a near-tragic event that would terrify any parent on this earth. But what he ultimately discovers is that his flawed heart is enough: Even the best fathers sometimes lose their footing. Parenting is a persistent cycle of recovery. All you can do is your very best, and what you believe is right. Captain Fantastic opens in limited release on July 8, 2016.