A camouflaged teen emerges from deep inside the Pacific Northwest woods, bow and knife in hand. His target: a deer grazing nearby. Minutes later, the deer is dead after a struggle, and the teen and his five siblings carry their prey back home to be carved, their proud father, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), declaring that “today the boy is dead and in his place a man [is born].”
Are they the members of a commune? A survivalist cult? A little bit of both. Ben and his now hospitalized wife Leslie decided a long time ago to home-school their children as far away as possible from our consumerist society and today’s technological distractions. They wanted to raise their kids as one with Nature and with thousands of years of human knowledge: they would become a tribe of “philosopher kings” subjected to rigorous intellectual and physical training that includes, among other activities, rock climbing during the day and reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch (in and of itself a manner of child abuse), Noah Chomsky and Marx at night. Little does Ben suspect, however, that his elder son Bo (George MacKay) has applied to and been accepted by six Ivy League schools. How will Ben react to the news? Will he feel betrayed? That dramatic set-up alone is promising. But Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic soon opts for a more conventional road trip meets fish-out-of-water plot.
Ben receives news that Leslie has committed suicide in the hospital and that his Christian and very conservative in-laws have decided to give her a proper Christian burial against her Buddhist beliefs and wishes as clearly stated in her last will and testament. The anti-establishment Ben decides to take matters on his own hand and packs his six children —Bo, 15-year-old twin sisters Vespyr and Kielyr (Annalise Basson and Samatha Isler, respectively), 12-year-old rebel Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), and younger kids Zata (Shree Crooks) and Nay (Charlie Shotwell)— in his Timothy Leary-inspired souped-up bus and leaves for Alburquerque, New Mexico to confront his in-laws.
On the way down, the kids encounter all kinds of wondrous and strange sights. Shopping malls! Fast food restaurants! Diners! Trailer parks! SUBURBIA! If they were listening to music other than Bach, they would feel like they were stepping into a Talking Heads song. The family engages in such radical stunts as “freeing food” from a supermarket. We are supposed to applaud and laugh because, you know, it’s so revolutionary! And on that trailer park, Bo feels his first sexual stirrings upon meeting a girl his own age to later embarrass himself in one of the most cringe-worthy and pathetic declarations of love ever portrayed on screen.
They crash at Ben’s sister and husband’s place (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, the latter in full decent guy mode) where Ben can’t avoid bragging about the superiority of his teaching methods and his children’s knowledge. Then there’s the funeral where, wearing the most outrageous costumes this side of Ragstock, Ben publicly berates his in-laws Jack and Abigail (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd). Rellian has had enough, lashing out at Ben for their upbringing and deciding to stay with his grandfather and the creature comforts he offers. An incident that almost costs one of his daughters a couple of bones, forces Ben to momentarily reevaluate his methods. But who needs moral quandaries when a Sundance-approved ending will do? And so, writer-director Ross has his characters take seven steps back, denying the film the kind of dramatic denouement it sorely needed.
For all its talk against conformity and the status quo and for all its looking down upon a society which has willingly surrendered to consumerism, Captain Fantastic is a film at odds with itself. It never truly questions the impact this alternative upbringing has or will have on these children. It doesn’t even question the almost authoritarian —not to say paternalistic— nature of their education. Yes, these children may recite the Bill of Rights in front of their video game-playing cousins…but they are just repeating texts, like parrots, without understanding their real life application, without any independent critical thinking.
And then there are the script’s many contradictions Ross willfully ignores in favor of a “feel good” notion of progressive politics. My favorite contradiction: after dragging his kids out of a diner because of its unhealthy “processed food” menu, among the many things they steal from that supermarket is a chocolate cake with sprinkles to celebrate Noah Chomsky’s birthday. Isn’t that cake made of…oh, I don’t know…PROCESSED FOOD????? And after turning his back on his family, Rellian decides to go back because…well, I would have to spoil the irresponsible, immature actions that again pass as rebellious in the film’s final act for which its criminal and legal consequences are barely acknowledged. No lessons are learned and the family’s alternative status quo is protected, Ross’ script cynically replacing one form of conformism for another.
It’s well nigh difficult to empathize with this family and their lifestyle, especially when their patriarch’s attitude towards the world at large is so smug and condescending. Ironically, Ben and Leslie have fallen prey to the same tribal mentality which afflicts our world by creating a tribe of their own, with its own rules. They may raise, eat and even sell organic food to local markets, read Karl Marx and Jared Diamond and sing Kumbaya in the middle of the night…but are they really so different from the tribes that can be found in cities and suburbs and small towns across the United States? Not really, especially when they have the means to buy high-powered weapons and pay for a flight to Namibia. In its unquestioning embrace of such an out-there lifestyle, Captain Fantastic is nothing more and nothing less than a progressive’s wet dream.
Nope, let me rephrase that no matter how clumsy it may sound and read: a privileged white progressive’s wet dream. People of color are virtually non-existent in the film: this separatist clan never engages the literature, the philosophy, the way of life of people of color, even though people of color have been oppressed by the same society Ben decries. He wants to fight the system, give it the middle finger, from a position of privilege, which makes his politics, his worldview, or whatever the hell you want to call it, hypocritical. Captain Fantastic is a truly reprehensible film.