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Captain Fantastic

Released 2016. Director: Matt Ross

BODEVAN. KIELYR. VESPYR. RELLIAN. ZEJA. NAI. These are the unique names of the children of Ben and Leslie. The kids range in age from college-age Bodevan to the youngest who’s not old enough yet to understand the birds and the bees. The family lives off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and their upbringing is just as unusual as their names.

Going by the opening scene you’d think they are savages. Painting themselves in mud, Bodevan leads his siblings to hunt and slaughter a deer with a hunting knife, fearlessly and expertly. Ben offers the animal's heart to Bo, who takes a bite like an initiation into adulthood or something. When they’re not hunting or growing their own food, the kids are schooled by their dad in literature, philosophy and science. Rock-climbing up a steep cliff is a normal family activity. Injured? Stop whining and carry on.

On the surface this movie is about unorthodox parenting. On a deeper level it’s a look at what counts as real education for the young. Ben is teaching his children to think, analyse, critique and communicate their ideas eloquently. Simply labelling something “interesting” is a cop-out without substantiating why. He also teaches his children practical skills in a self-sustaining lifestyle, along with an anti-Capitalism and anti-establishment “stick it to the man” attitude.

Unfortunately Ben has to yank his family out of their idyllic existence and integrate momentarily into the wider world. Leslie has died after spending several months at a hospital and her wealthy and influential parents, who are opposed to the way their grandchildren are being brought up, are taking charge of her funeral against her final wishes. Ben loads the kids on their big blue bus and drives all the way to New Mexico to intervene. The trip and their mission will be an education for everyone.

Captain Fantastic is a family drama mostly about one father’s singular vision. As played by Viggo Mortensen, Ben is a determined and compassionate figure who juggles the grief of losing his wife and protecting his brood. He’s steadfast and stubborn but not entirely immovable and gradually, Mortensen brings out a man whose love for his children overrides his own convictions and shows us he’s not just a drill sergeant who wants to be the next Dr Benjamin Spock.

The kids share a solidarity in purpose and tackle this adventure—in their eyes, to rescue mum from grandpa—with wonder and innocence. They are young people with values and principles as taught by their parents, yet there is something crucial missing in their lives. They have no friends. Apart from their rigid daily routine aimed to develop them intellectually, physically and mentally, the outside world is completely invisible. The family has no TV, newspapers or computers, which means they have no idea what’s happening outside their secluded patch of paradise. They have an insular worldview where other people don’t really exist. This is not a well-rounded education by any definition. Kids also need friends. Ben’s kids don’t know how to talk to other people because they’ve never had to relate to anyone outside their clan.

Although the movie doesn’t really explain why this is never addressed by Ben, the gap in his parenting doctrine is made obvious in an amusing scene. As the family stops for the night at a trailer park, Bo befriends a girl intrigued by this strange boy. They talk, the girl flirts with Bo and then they kiss. The next thing you know, Bo is on one knee proposing marriage because he thinks that’s what happens after a boy kisses a girl.

Parents want the best for their children and for them to grow up in a certain direction. When the family drops in on Leslie’s sister Harper, the movie contrasts Ben’s unconventional method with the familiar suburban parenting and lays on thick its criticism. Harper’s boys are typical of a middle-class gadget-obsessed generation raised on too much technology, not enough nature, over-reliance on convenience food, general ignorance and an inability to articulate their thoughts. But they’re just kids, you hear some parents protesting. How do you achieve a happy balance?

Captain Fantastic turns out in the end to be immensely entertaining as well as thought provoking. The family disrupts a solemn funeral, executes a grave robbery and holds a scattering of ashes where nobody would ever contemplate. Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Katherine Hahn and Steve Zahn round out the supporting cast as the adults with George McKay in the role of Bo, each lending a believable voice in matters of child-rearing and family bereavement. The kids have lost their mother, are they also going to lose their dad because of grandpa's intervention?

It’s often easy and tempting to criticise someone else’s parenting style. It’s also impolite. What business is it of ours how other people raise their kids? If you’ve been a parent and if you’ve seen Captain Fantastic, what do you think?


Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.

1 Comment

Ruth Maramis
Ruth Maramis
4 days ago

I saw this a while ago and enjoyed it! Viggo rarely made a wrong move acting-wise, and I'm also impressed with George MacKay as well as his eldest son. Viggo's proven to be a terrific director as well, love The Dead Don't Hurt.

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