CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: 21st Century Parenting
To title your film with the superlative 'Fantastic' is playing with fire. Firstly, in this age of Marvel's silver screen domination and DC's valiant attempts to catch up, it would be understandable for any jaded cinema-goer to skip this one, expecting another facile, spandex-clad superhero epic; secondly, if it fails the headlines write themselves, and every movie critic worth their
To title your film with the superlative ‘Fantastic’ is playing with fire. Firstly, in this age of Marvel’s silver screen domination and DC’s valiant attempts to catch up, it would be understandable for any jaded cinema-goer to skip this one, expecting another facile, spandex-clad superhero epic; secondly, if it fails the headlines write themselves, and every movie critic worth their salt would crowbar in a reference to the irony of the film’s title.
Luckily, Matt Ross‘ sophomore effort Captain Fantastic, following 2012’s 28 Hotel Rooms, will have few critics drawing knives, and anyone eagerly searching for an antithesis to the recent barrage of superhero blockbusters in cinemas will be satisfied, if not delighted, when the credits roll.
We start in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, with breathtaking nature and beauty; running waterfalls, sun-dappled leaves, and wildlife. This scene is interrupted by a young man who appears from a bush, clad in black paint, and then proceeds to brutally kill a deer which had been grazing nearby. Soon after, we see an older man join him, who uses the blood of the deer to paint the younger’s face, and then proclaim ‘today the boy is dead. In his place stands a man’.
The older man is Ben Cash, patriarch of the Cash family. He’s raising his children in the forest to save them from the evils of American capitalism and to teach them how to think for themselves. By and large he is successful in this, as early scenes show his children reading advanced books such as The Brothers Karamazov, Middlemarch, and Lolita; they have honest discourse about politics to an advanced degree for children their age (“It’s not Trotskyite, it’s Trotskyist. Only Stalinists call them Trotskyites!”), and have frank discussions about sex and gender roles. They are even, all of them, musicians; one early scene shows them playing music together by the campfire at night.
As well as this, and thanks to Ben’s rigorous training regime, they are also athletes; climbing rock faces in the rain, sprinting through the forest, and learning how to kill someone with a hunting knife. So far, so Utopian, but the absence of Ben’s wife is felt, and once Ben learns what happened to her we begin to see the flaws in his idealistic approach to parenthood. Soon, the children are uprooted from their forest locale and taken across country to do the one thing their father never taught them: how to interact with society.
The Viggo Mortensen Show
Captain Fantastic is the kind of movie which would live or die based on the quality of its cast, and thankfully they are excellent. As great as they all are, though, this is the Viggo Mortensen show; Ben Cash, in lesser hands, could easily have come across as an authoritarian presence, ironically becoming the very thing he’s trying to protect his kids from, yet Mortensen, always impressive but never better than when he does low budget indies such as this, allows Ben’s weaknesses and doubt to show.
His Ben is a man genuinely trying to do the best for his family, and is clearly conflicted about whether or not his decisions are the right ones. Whenever Ben makes a parenting choice, however strange it may seem (his eight year old daughter Zaja asks him what crack is, and Ben, incredibly frank as he is with all his children, fully explains the concept of illegal narcotics and their function in society in front of his incredulous sister and her husband), we understand why he does it, even if we don’t agree, and so he is much easier to empathise with.
The children also are wonderful; George MacKay‘s Bodevan can be stand-offish and proud in the first half, but he is the awkward, anxious teenager that you would expect him to be as soon as he is confronted by a female – MacKay gives the film many of its funniest moments. The girls may have too little to do at times, but both Samantha Isler and Annalise Baso imbue their characters with fierce independence; there is one scene in which they speak to each other in three or four different languages as they challenge Ben’s rule that they can’t speak Esperanto because not everyone in the family can speak it.
Finally, credit has to go to the stalwart Frank Langella as Ben’s traditionalist, conservative father-in-law Jack. Another actor may have played Jack as an apoplectic right-wing reactionary, seething with rage at what that dirty hippie Ben has done to his grandchildren, but Langella‘s Jack tempers his rage with a deep and rational concern for his family that’s all too understandable; he is not the villain of the movie, though he easily could’ve been. Instead he is the counterpoint to Ben’s aggressive idealism, anchoring the movie’s tendency to fly away with its own fantasies at times, and reminding us that there are real-world implications that need to be considered before making such drastic decisions.
As you might expect from a film that bears a little resemblance to 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, Captain Fantastic is ultimately a very feel-good movie, and as such the emotional beats are energised with a unique soundtrack that covers the likes of Sigur Rós and a take on Scotland the Brave, to Yo-Yo Ma and Glenn Gould’s The Goldberg Variations (the last of which is used in an amusing moment to underscore Bodevan’s complete lack of pop-culture awareness). Finally, there is a rendition of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O Mine which is utterly moving and will have your heart souring at the final moments of the film.
The Cash Family Values
Captain Fantastic is a study about the difficulties of parenthood. From the moment we’re introduced to Ben Cash, we see him being a father before he is anything else. He tries to create a balance in his children’s lives which is admirable; a disciplinarian when necessary, he also encourages and nurtures his children’s beliefs, while teaching them how to think critically. In one scene, after his daughter Kielyr describes the book she’s reading as interesting, he castigates her for using a ‘non-word’ and requests that she give him a more in-depth analysis of the book. This might seem very pushy to some, and there will be those who abhor Ben’s methods, but immediately after chiding her, Kielyr responds with an intelligent, thoughtful critique: Ben challenges her, and in so doing, Kielyr challenges herself.
Another scene has youngest son – and most vocal dissident of the Cash family values – Rellian ask why they don’t celebrate Christmas like normal families (instead, and rather brilliantly, they celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday). Ben invites him to sit down and have a discourse on the subject, telling him that if he can put forward a compelling and reasonable argument, the family will genuinely consider his request. It’s refreshing to see all of the other children agree to this, and it’s a credit to Ben’s parenting skills that his children are so willing to set aside their differences and come to a compromise, especially in a world which seems to be increasingly selfish.
There are obvious downsides to Ben’s methods, and these are apparent in the second half of Captain Fantastic, which sees the family board their bus named Steve and travel across the country. Incredibly bright and talented though they may be, it’s clear that the Cash children have no idea how to interact with the world around them. Restaurants confuse them, social etiquette is lost on them, and romantic interaction is clumsy at best. After oldest child Bodevan finds himself confused after receiving the affections of a teenage girl, and increasingly at odds with the life he knew in the forest, he angrily proclaims to his father ‘Unless it comes out of a book I don’t know anything!’
The real argument to be made with these children is whether or not they have truly benefited from their unusual upbringing, or whether Ben has destroyed their lives before they’ve even begun – Bodevan is accepted to all major Ivy League Universities but is afraid to tell his father for fear of reprisal, while Kielyr and Vespyr are strong, intelligent women who could easily follow in Bodevan’s footsteps in a few years but without social interaction there’s no telling how they would cope. Rellian longs to be a normal kid, playing video games, celebrating Christmas, and spending less of his time devoted to what Ben calls training. For the younger children the jury is out, but without their mother the argument could be made that they would suffer even more.
In the end, the film doesn’t condemn either method. There is a middle ground that’s reached that some may deride as facile and patronising, but it makes sense for a film that isn’t trying to make a political statement, nor does it want to preach about how to be a parent. It is simply one man’s struggle to do right by his children.
Captain Fantastic will inevitably become a Rorschach movie: your opinion of it may likely depend on your own politics and views on modern society. The movie skews both left and right at times, both condemning capitalism and corporate mentality, and suggesting that there are many things in the modern world we should appreciate and embrace.
Ultimately, though, no matter your opinions on Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or whether you’re a blue state or a red state kind of person, this film is about one man’s attempts to raise his family in the 21st century amidst all of the turmoil. And even if you don’t agree with his methods, there’s little doubt that everything Ben does is for his family, which is something everyone can appreciate.
When the curtain comes down on 2016, Captain Fantastic should definitely be considered one of the best films of the year.
Ben Cash’s parenting style may be unusual, but do you think it works? Is Ben the world’s worst father, or the world’s best? Or is he somewhere in-between?
Captain Fantastic has been playing in cinemas wordlwide since July. Find international release dates here.
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