Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
The world of cinema can often adopt a hard approach towards those who choose to live away from the constructs of society; the ones who opt for a simpler existence. You can either be portrayed as a bearded elderly loner who ekes out an existence in the deep dark woods surrounded by firearms with the heads of your “trophies” mounted on the walls; or you can retreat for a period of peacefulness until the constructs of society call you back. It is rare to see a film sympathetic to those who create their own Eden. Although it may sound like a lame superhero flick, Captain Fantastic (Mark Ross, 2016) is actually a powerful film that is a wonderful example of how a man copes when his unusual utopia is threatened.
From the heavy forest that dominates the screen to the lonesome deer that we soon meet; the opening shot makes Ross’ audience, immediately accustomed to the lack of civilisation that surrounds this landscape. We are then introduced to a mud-covered Bodevan “Bo” Cash (George MacKay) tracking and killing said deer, which prompts his father, Ben (Viggo Mortenson) to announce with praise: “Today the boy is dead, and in his place is a man”. Ben is a dreamer who raises his six children in their own personal idyll. Bo, Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Cooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) have been raised by their father to fend; fight; and think for themselves, far away from the concrete jungles of civilisation. By day they hunt game and scale jagged mountain faces; by night, it’s discussions on Marxism and the philosopher Noam Chomsky. Their lives are pictured as idyllic, feathered with the sun’s golden iridescence that filters itself through the trees. To the peaceful spiritualist, this would be an ideal way to live, to be at one with nature. However, the catalyst for change comes when a tragedy soon arises that shakes the Cash family and all their beliefs at its very core. The family soon learn of their mother, Leslie’s (Trin Miller), death. Did living away from the normalities of society and the modern world become too much for her? This is where the social commentary of Ross’ indie picture really comes to light.
Tasked with the mission of taking his children to Leslie’s funeral, the Cash family board “Steve”, their safe haven of a renovated school bus. For the children, it’s an eye-opening journey of intense discovery as they are introduced to fast-food, supermarkets and trailer parks. However, for Ben, it’s a painful trip. He fears that the world’s temptations will ruin the purities of his children that he has fought so hard to instil. When visiting his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Dave (Steve Zahn), tempers flare over dinner when the Cash children are mocked by their cousins for referring to Nike as a Greek goddess rather than the shoe brand. In the same scene, Harper dismisses Ben’s actions of offering his children wine, as “children don’t drink wine”. This scene stuck with me as it clearly highlights the reoccurring issue of American society holding itself above other cultures of the world. Ben explains that in “…other countries, children drink small amounts of wine all the time. It’s a digestive, it’s not crack”. An element of Ben’s humanity that I love is that he never hides anything from his children. When Zaja asks what crack is, her father gives a brief history of the drug. While Harper and Dave belittle Ben’s fondness for telling the truth, I think this film sends an important message. It showcases that if your child has a question, it should be answered and not ignored just because it can make you uncomfortable. In a world that is continuously evolving with each new generation, I stand by this allegory that Captain Fantastic enforces.
Now, while the Cash children have an extraordinary knowledge of all esoteric subjects, Ben is yet to realise that his experimental teachings are also limiting their life experiences. His children begin to start doubting his parenting skills. A pivotal character arch is when we learn that Bo wants to escape to the society that his parents so heavily rejected. His first taste of “real life” comes when he meets Claire (Erin Moriarty) at a trailer park. He’s awkward, and it’s a bittersweet moment where he soon comes to realise that he doesn’t know how to relate to people his age. In a later scene, Bo accuses his father of failing to equip them with the tools of living in the real world. It’s an explosion of emotions where both men shout at each other. One’s eyes are full of altruism, the other’s are full of anger, and it is a crystal-clear example of the complicated ways in which a family love each other.
Captain Fantastic is a film that revels in the counter-culture. It goes beyond conformity, poking fun at the “conventions” that societies take for granted. It also highlights debates in the “correct” ways of raising a child. Everyone has heard the “Don’t-Tell-Me-How-To-Raise-My-Own-Child” argument but…is there really a right way? Ross’ film encompasses plenty of metaphors that give light to many questions about society and how we view outsiders. Is Mortenson’s character a dangerous, manipulative God-like figure who’s disciples have turned into oddballs; or is he just an unorthodox rebel who makes rapid attempts in encouraging his children to live their own truths. Could the film just be an exploration into the sad case of a man who has gone too far in his alternative education that he’s unable to adhere to his own social conducts? What would really happen if we as a whole escaped the primes of life, opting for alienation from humanity? I’ve got many more questions but, for now, if there’s anything to take from Mark Ross’ picture, it’s that Captain Fantastic is a thoroughly entertaining and heart-warming watch. Ben Cash is the hero that his children really needed. Not all heroes wear capes, but they do save you when you least expect it.