Deep in the woods and far away from American capitalistic society, plagued with culture of consumerism, materialism and narcissism, Ben Cash, a patriarch and a father, is raising his six children. Surrounded by nothing but trees, rivers and mountains, his family is living in an unconventional and self-sufficient micro-utopia, based in their unanimous and unconditional refusal of living in what they call “capitalistic fascism”. Refusing to live in a society controlled by money and material goods, they instead form a highly routinised, but entirely self-sufficient way of living, where nothing but demanding physical routines, exercising of survival techniques and extensive, in-depth learning of maths, physics, literature and philosophy fill their daily schedule.
Ben Cash, who is subtly transitioning between the role of an authoritarian patriarch and that of a gentle, understanding and maternal father, is openly contemptuous toward capitalistic society in which people are ever more aggressively ruled by corporations and where any sense of democracy and socio-environmental awareness is increasingly fading away due to narcissistic alienation of first world’s shopping mall population. It is due to him seeing just how powerless, alienated and numb people are, how unable to see anything beyond the newest fashion or trend and how disinterested in the damage that this increasing consumerism is doing to the planet, that he makes a choice of raising his children in complete isolation from all consumer goods, modern technology, popular music and trashy novels – something that, in turn, also means raising them away from institutionalized school system and religion, nationalistic ideology and patriotism, normative social conventions and socially-constructed gender roles. Their idyllic utopia is representing a world in which good education and the ability to argument one’s opinion is celebrated above all else – and where living in the heart of a wild and unpredictable nature is still considered the safest shelter from the monstrous, to humans and environment always damaging capitalistic system.
But when a tragic news about the death of their mother reaches their ideally constructed family life, they suddenly need to leave their safe-zone and step into the civilization; if only to attend her funeral on the other side of the country. And it is here, with them finally setting foot into chaotic everyday of American urban life, that we can observe first negative signs of their isolated upbringing. Bo, the eldest son who only recently came of age, finds it especially hard when he realizes just how insufficient his knowledge about life is, how difficult carrying a conversation with his peers with absolutely no knowledge about pop-culture references and how confusing to understand the difference between innocent flirting and falling in love for someone who has no experiences with girls whatsoever.
Captain Fantastic, easily one of the best films of the year, is therefore continuously playing with a question: is Ben truly the best father in the world, Captain Fantastic, who is effectively resisting to the system and is enabling his children the best possible alternate way of living? Or does his approach to parenthood also has a somewhat darker, problematic side that at times borders on abuse?
The film actively encourages us to think about the meaning of parenthood and about the role that each parent plays for his children – but it skilfully avoids to either idealize or criticise Ben’s unique vision of what family life should look like. He is a fascinating and superbly written (as well as acted) character that never fells into the trap of a good/bad parent dichotomy. As every person, but even more so as a parent, he is imperfect, he makes mistakes and has lapses in judgement, but all while trying to do the right thing at building the best possible life for his family.
Matt Ross’s feature, refusing to step on either side, therefore recognizes flaws and weaknesses in both lifestyles – in a hippie-inspired communal life in the nature, as well as in life infected by consumer capitalism that has spread through the rest of the Western civilization. Yet when we compare his parenting to that of his sister’s permissive, protective and infantilizing way of raising her kids, our idealistic protagonist still comes across as a somewhat better parent – one who treats his children with respect, who does not lie to them about the cause of their mother’s death and who sees them all as equal, no matter their age or gender.
This road movie, that at times comes across as a mixture of Into the Wild (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), definitely has quite an unconventional premise: how to sabotage their mother’s funeral and rescue her remains before she gets swallowed by the system to which she resisted all her live for the remaining eternity. But behind this simple, yet very unusual story, is a very straightforward critique of our society, as well as a film about what it means to be a family in a time when all that seems to matter is money and everything that money can buy.
As they return to their secluded home in the middle of nowhere, safely distanced from the aggressive system that at all cost tried to suck them into its depth during their roadtrip, they quickly slip back into their daily routine, but with one important change: Bo, who has outgrown the idyllic utopia his father has built for him and his siblings, leaves the captain’s crew to continue his adventures, broaden his horizons and experience life in foreign countries. Since there is always a limit to what our parents can teach us, there usually comes a time when we need to part ways and go on our own path, to make our own experiences. Their communal self-sufficient way of living cannot go on forever, as each of them will eventually need to leave the nest – but what is important is that they will set their feet into the real world with a completely unique, different set of eyes, free of any hate or prejudice, but full of knowledge and hunger to learn. Bo’s departure therefore gives us nothing but hope that he is off to keep on fighting the good fight; as he chooses to keep on living his life outside of the system, following his own rules, living by his own principles. Or as Bo and the youngest of the six conclude their dialogue: “Power to the people!” “Stick it to the man!”
Directed by: Matt Ross
Written by: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso
Running Time: 118 minutes