The plot of Viggo Mortensen’s latest film, Captain Fantastic, revolves around the character development of off-the-grid homeschoolers. It is a film full of extremes and contradictions.
Mortensen’s character, Ben Cash, along with his wife, Leslie, live in a well established forest dwelling with six of their kids of varying ages. It takes about ten minutes, but the audience soon finds out that Ben’s wife is absent. Leslie suffers from severe depression and has been away receiving treatment for it.
The opening scene shows the eldest son covered in mud, jumping out of the foliage to catch a deer. The scene then shows him slicing its throat. This is quickly followed by an informal introduction to the Cash family, as each child emerges from behind trees and shrubs. It’s soon established that this hunt was part of a rite of passage. Having successfully completed the hunt, Cash “christens” his eldest son a man.
Cash runs a regimented homeschool routine. Each child participates in the equivalent of rigorous military grade “training’’. In one scene Cash is shown abseiling a steep cliff with all six kids in tow. When one of the older boys slips and slams his right hand against the rock wall, Cash forces him to keep climbing. Once at the top all children are shown shivering and exhausted.
Though Cash is himself well-educated and fair, his homeschooling technique and lifestyle combine to create a unique homeschool situation.
When Cash receives news that his wife has committed suicide, Cash, due to threats from his father-in-law, decides not to attend her funeral. It isn’t until his kids remind him of what they stand for as a family; of what he has taught them, that Cash decides to “stick-it-to-the-man.”
This triggers a road trip that reveals the conflicted attitudes wider society has towards homeschooling. Despite Cash’s eldest son gaining entry into every top Ivy League university in the United States, his sister challenges the benefits of home education, particularly when you don’t really have a house to call a home. His father-in-law, though a loving grandfather, struggles to hide his deep contempt for Cash’s homeschooling, which is only complicated further by grief over the death of his daughter.
Through encounters on the road trip, the family discovers social gaps in their learning. This leads to a deep introspective reflection by Cash on how much their decisions might have contributed to his wife’s depression and ultimate end. Cash is slowly awakened to the fact that his and his wife’s extreme lifestyle, and the homeschooling that accompanied it, while successful, isn’t as perfect as he had come to believe.
Captain Fantastic doesn’t hide its ideological influences or its contradictions. In one scene, after visiting a bank, we witness the family discussing their rule that, ‘’we don’t fun make of anyone. Not even fat people, only Christians’’.
In another scene, we’re shown Cash receiving money for homemade products that he had been sold on consignment at a local store. Yet, in another we’re shown Cash ridiculing capitalism to his kids. There is an inescapable irony when a man with the last name Cash, decries the evils of capitalism, having himself just benefited from capitalism.
This is only heightened by further extremes. Cash fakes a heart attack in a supermarket to distract staff so his children can carry out, what was called “operation free-the-food”. Then at a nearby park, Cash rewards the kids and dedicates the spoils to his leftist idol, and modern liberal, Noam Chomsky. Something Cash later justifies, when his father-in-law calls him out on it, as ‘’training’’.
For me, the contradictions and intenseness of the story make it profound, not loveable. There is a pretentiousness that permeates the selective tolerance encountered from certain groups and individuals in Western society. The point being that Cash, while pointing to the extremism he claims to see in others, fails to see his own.
One area where this is highlighted is in how well-read the children are. Yet, there is no real mention of them ever having engaged the Bible let alone picked up, or had their father assign to them a book on 2000 plus years of Judeo-Christian theology.
There is also the unchallenged promotion of Buddhism as being a superior “philosophy” because it “is not an organised religion” (Quote/unquote).
We’re expected to feel sorry for Cash and applaud him, as he and his kids burst into the colourless Catholic Church service in brightly coloured clothes. Then we’re encouraged to empathise with Cash as he interrupts the service. In protest against what he sees as an injustice carried out by ‘’the-man”, he reads his wife’s will out loud to the congregation stating that she was a Buddhist, and would not want to be farewelled under this superstitious, extremist religious ‘’oppression.’’
The audience is blinded by the dysfunction on display, long enough to keep them from sighing with those at the end of Cash’s verbal whip lashing. There is no tolerance shown to other grieving relatives, including Leslie’s parents. There is no compassion for dialogue or serving others. The closest we come to this is Leslie’s, ‘’obedient’’ mother, who is made to look aloof, as someone oppressed under the thumb of patriarchy.
The supposed Christian extremism is placed against Cash’s own extremist lifestyle; one that leads Cash and his kids to dig up their mother’s body, and then travel back to the wilderness where they cremate her and dance around the pyre performing the Guns ‘N Roses, song ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.
While some aspects of Captain Fantastic resonate fairly with the homeschool journey, its extremes are not what homeschooling actually looks like.
Captain Fantastic portrays homeschooling in all its positive tension. Cash has taught his kids well. They’re disciplined, free thinkers who are intelligent and healthy. However, Captain Fantastic also plays into the abuse of extremes. Its plot quietly rides the anti-socialization myth about homeschooled children and because of this there is a sense that the kids are deliberately portrayed as being socially awkward.
The context of the children’s homeschooling makes this forgivable, but in the end, it doesn’t completely cover up the subtle support this lends to anti-homeschool advocates.
Yet, Captain Fantastic isn’t as iconoclastic as it first appears to be. What is on the surface isn’t necessarily what is underneath.
Here Hollywood is displaying the dysfunction and dissonance in those who advocate an alternative society; who vomit slurs and contempt at the very society they benefit from, without really acknowledging that the same society they ridicule, also protects and allows them the freedom to ridicule it.
In this way, Captain Fantastic exemplifies G.K Chesterton’s statement,
“Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom”. (Orthodoxy, 1901)
and Michael Horton’s view that,
‘Without a serious recognition of original sin, we can easily become passive pawns in the game of dictators and democrats alike. It is the doctrine of human perfectibility that has brought tyrants to the world stage with the worshipful applause of the masses, but the biblical teaching awakens us from our moralistic slumbers, identifying God as the only reliable object of our faith’[i]
[Disclosure: no payment or other incentives were received for writing this review]
[i] Horton, M. 2008 Christless Christianity, Baker Books
Captain Fantastic is a Matt Ross film, 2016 Bleeker Street Productions