If you watch only one fun and quirky survivalist family film this year, make it "Captain Fantastic."
The brainchild of writer/director Matt Ross (antagonist Gavin Belson on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”), “Captain Fantastic (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)” tells the story of Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) who is bringing up his six children “off the grid” in the Pacific Northwest.
Ben and his wife, Leslie, decided long ago to leave the world behind and raise platonic ideals of philosopher kings. They would be self-sufficient physically, honest emotionally, and intellectually inculcated with Noam Chomsky and other Socialist thinkers.
Fed a steady diet of survivalism (knife fighting, archery, etc), Chomskyist anti-capitalist/corporatist philosophy, music and intellectual stimulation, the kids are, at once, precocious, independent, extremely intelligent and innocent.
As the first act comes to a close we learn that Ben’s wife, who had been hospitalized due to depression, has committed suicide. This tragedy sets off a chain of events that compels Ben and the children to make the pilgrimage to her funeral. That’s where the inevitable clash between Ben’s ideals, the children’s innocence and the world-at-large occurs.
We come away from “Captain Fantastic” with a sense that Ben’s motives, pure and noble as they are, have some serious flaws. As the film progresses, both Ben and the kids learn to make peace with and co-exist with the world around them.
FAST FACT: Viggo Mortensen’s first acting break came at 27. He landed a small role playing an Amish farmer in the Harrison Ford drama “Witness.”
Bolstered by a quick pacing, breezy camera work and a superlative score and soundtrack, the movie is light and effervescent throughout. Ross, who spent time on California’s communes as a child, draws on that experience. He perfectly captures and plays off the children’s innocence, brutal honesty, and brilliance as they make observations about and critique the world Ben has worked so hard to protect and remove them from.
The film could have easily turned maudlin and heavy-handed, but the director keeps the emotion steady and pacing light. He never allows the story to slip into melodrama. Even its heaviest moments seem honest, real and poignant.
However, Ben is a Chomskyite and, as such, he is able to be portrayed as a loveable and caring father.
Whenever the mood threatens to become too unnecessarily dark, there is usually a breath of fresh air, most often in the form of a child’s comment or action that breaks the tension without stealing the emotional resonance. This gives the whole picture a lightness despite the intense subject matter.
It would be all too easy to dismiss the film on purely ideological grounds owing to its obvious romance with leftism. That would do injustice to a fine and engaging film.
Parents, left, right and center, struggle to raise their kids in this flawed society while shielding them from its obvious excesses. The exploration of the topic, whether from a right-leaning or left-leaning perspective, is important.
As someone who homeschooled his child and struggled with the pros and cons of placing him in gen-pop, I can attest to the importance of such a meditation. My biggest quibble would not be with the film itself, but rather the cultural milieu the film exploits so well.
Had this been a story of right wing survivalists instead of left wing ones, we’d have an entirely different picture.
The mythos of the culture we live in is one that allows us to envision, in a truly ambivalent and even positive light, someone wanting to retreat from society and raise their kids apart from it. That’s only if that retreat is driven by an anti-capitalist sentiment.
Had Ben been a right wing survivalist who, because of what he saw as over consumption and a power-hungry government, was driven to retreat from society and raise his kids in the forests of Idaho, I don’t believe we, as a culture would be prone to commiserate with him.
I have even fewer doubts that if Ben were a religious homeschooler, teaching his kids to hunt boar with AR-15s and defend themselves with Glocks, the movie would have taken an even darker turn.
The truth of the matter is that the ‘leave me and others alone’ philosophy of libertarianism more than likely produces more solitary, family-oriented survivalists than the communal spirit of leftism. But that probably would be a harder sell in a movie like this.
However, Ben is a Chomskyite and, as such, he is able to be portrayed as a lovable and caring father. His youngest kids can say, “stick it to the man” and we think it’s adorable. The revolution he teaches his kids is cute instead of what it is in reality….a radical call towards ultimate violence against those in power.
FAST FACT: “Captain Fantastic” earned $5.8 million during its U.S. theatrical run.
The issue here isn’t that it’s made cute. It’s that it can be made cute and acceptable. As an audience we are more prone to accept his seclusion and feel ambivalence towards his predicament of raising brilliant kids apart from society in large part because his retreat is contextualized as a leftist escape from society.
“He might hate society, he might want revolution” we think to ourselves…“But at least he’s doing it for the correct reasons.” This is not necessarily the fault of the filmmakers, as the challenge of making a right-wing, anti-statist, survivalist tale would be, due to cultural preconception, almost insurmountable.
Imagine relating to the struggles of a family of lovable, right-wing survivalists who joke about overthrowing the federal government that tramples individual sovereignty.
Hard, isn’t it?
Ultimately “Captain Fantastic (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)” is both entertaining and worthwhile. The acting is superlative, the directing and writing quirky and fun. Its portrayal of engaged paternal devotion is heart-warming and inspiring.
Despite the fact that the film, at times, feels like a yearning love poem to socialist ideals, the greater issues it explores – the conflict between a parent’s desire to protect his kids from society’s corrupting influences and the need to prepare them to live within society, the challenges of honest parenting, and the conflict between ideals and reality – are presented wonderfully.