In an early scene in writer-director Matt Ross’s film Captain Fantastic Viggo Mortenson’s father character Ben finds his daughter reading Lolita, the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov and he asks for her analysis. What follows is a pretty accurate assessment of Humbert Humbert’s pitiable obsession with a 12 year old girl and his daughter points out something intrinsic to the narrative: since it is written from the man’s perspective his actions seem justified, if only because he believes they are, and so you sympathize with him even though he is precisely a pedophile and a criminal using his understanding of love as an excuse for his actions. Although Ben Cash is neither of those things, this is a pretty astute foreshadowing of the rest of the film as his attempts to guide and educate his children, his love for them inspire some very questionable, mildly illegal behavior. Ultimately, he is both the protagonist and antagonist and Mortenson does a great job with the material coming off believably as a brilliant Libertarian mountain man/survivalist. But if he’s lacking anything, and this could apply to the character as well, it’s heart. He’s not the most approachable person, evoking Ted Kacynski more than David Cassidey, and this is where the talented cast of children balance things out and it’s easy to immediately cheer for them, a difficult task from a group that is more or less a Doomsday Cult.
The cover of Captain Fantastic at first implied something akin to Wes Anderson and it’s important to note that this is pretty far from the case. Rather, it feels closer to David O. Russell and his earlier work about damaged outcasts looking for a sense of family. Thematically, however, this is the opposite of what this film is about. Family is all they have and although they are physically healthy and well educated the fact that the Partridge family bus is not a school bus at all but a prisoner transport is a pretty on the nose metaphor for their lives. It starts an interesting conversation about the concept of homeschooling, at one point Ben pits his 8 year old daughter against her two teenage cousins on the subject of the Bill of Rights, and although she is able to both recite them from memory and provide a detailed analysis this is treated as a victory for his family. But in reality, despite the fact that public schooling is a deeply flawed system the social skills that develop in those settings are undeniably critical to functionality and happiness in later life. We are, with rare exception, social creatures and while denying children the opportunity to make that decision for themselves is an absolute right that parents have, the results of such an experiment should be explored. My own experience involved my first roommate at tech school falling asleep every day in class because he sat up until 5am every night painting Warhammer figurines. Having never been on his own or under the supervision of adults who were not his parents he never developed a sense of respect for their authority or an ounce of consideration for his roommate who was trying to fucking sleep.
That being said, Ben Cash is honest and direct with his children at all times and this is undeniably admirable. Having grown up in a less than conventional environment I was always able to tell when adults were lying to me about mature subjects, however when folks did occasionally treat me with the respect that was usually afforded to grown ups I recognized it. Children are a lot more intelligent than they are given credit for and in a lot of ways can be better at processing information and better at detecting bullshit. So those grown ups that were honest with me I tended to trust more and the uncle that told me the “Clearance 7’2” sign that hangs over the drive thru at McDonald’s meant that they were on the lookout for someone named “Clearance” who was seven feet, two inches tall was generally not someone I relied on as much. For the record, I figured out what the sign meant before turning 20…..ish.
If I had to fault Captain Fantastic it would have to be in the third act and its emotional, if somewhat idealistic finale. The journey that the kids go on is different from their father’s and he rightfully exacts the price that he should for his myopic approach to raising children in the world we all live in, the one that is so often lethargic, ignorant, and materialistic. But the cost doesn’t stick. And instead of losing something permanently in exchange for what he’s taken away from his children which is, in a lot of ways, their actual childhood, he only glimpses what would in real life be more of an implacability. But that’s okay, this is not a deal breaker and this is not that kind of film. Like so many great ones that are overshadowed of late by blockbuster theatrical releases and sequels of prequels of CGI spectacle it’s important to remember that there are some that have have an actual heart. One with a lovely message that even an off-the-grid, Noam Chomsky worshipping, Renaissance Man wouldn’t mind his kids seeing. It’s about the strength and resilience of family and the ability to admit a mistake, even if it is an enormous perspective altering one. I am a big believer in the idea that sometimes it’s necessary to lose the path in order to find it again and if that’s too esoteric of an idea or sounds like fortune cookie wisdom, this may be too sentimental of an experience. Otherwise, there’s plenty of room on this bus.