Captain Fantastic – no, it’s not the latest lyrca-loving Marvel hero but an Indie flick with some of the offbeat-family vibe of Little Miss Sunshine, but reared in the foreboding forests of The Mosquito Coast. Put another way, it’s a narrative thought experiment: what would happen if Western academics actually practised what they preached? If their vocal support of inquisitive and critical thinking – in particular, cynicism toward socio-economic mega-institutions geared around consumerist capitalism (think Wal-Mart, Wall Street, Big Pharma) – formed the basis of actions, not words.
That’s effectively the mission statement of Captain Fantastic’s central figure, Ben (Viggo Mortenson). He takes the intellectual arguments made popular by Chomsky and co. and puts them into practise in raising his own kids. With his wife, he takes them into the heart of the forest, away from the corrupting influences of modern technology and American lifestyle. They are schooled in hunting, classic literature, advanced scientific theory, and have the physique of ‘elite athletes’. They are what he calls ‘philosopher kings’, referring to Plato’s blueprint for utopic rulers laid out in The Republic.
It makes for a fascinating set up. In the film’s first third, we are completely immersed in their secluded intellectual/anarchist paradise. We sample the pleasures of debating Trotskyism around a dying fire, of a young group learning to fend for themselves, of training their minds and bodies to remain calm, even when faced with, say, a severe injury climbing a sheer rock-face. The children are inquisitive, self-aware, tolerant, discursive and healthy. But there is undoubtedly something missing. Something slightly off. Their full blooded emotional displays – frequent howling, screaming with abandon when angry, laughing joyously in jest – are refreshingly honest and real, but lack the control and social awareness that a childhood in a wider community would instil in them.
It’s a point driven home with their eventual interaction with the society they’ve been warned against all their lives. Nai rudely calls out at fat people in a diner. Bo (George MacKay) proposes marriage to the first girl he kisses. As the eldest, Bo later states revealingly, ‘if it doesn’t come out of a book, I don’t know it!’ MacKay is great at showing the tension of competing world-views inside his semi-indoctrinated head. You can see every muscle surrounding his skull clenching.
The reason the family are propelled back into society is their mother’s death, which could have been prevented if she’d had access to mental health therapy and a wider support network. Whether modern American society provides such resources remains up for discussion. But the point is wider – aren’t some aspects of the Leviathan, or Consumer Capitalism, or whatever you want to call government-supported Establishments, actually desirable? Isn’t it better, for instance, to have access to a well-funded, technologically advanced hospital? To a supermarket that stocks nutritionally valuable, low cost food? What about universities, where free debate with opinions opposite your own is encouraged?
Of course, all these benefits might be called into question: debates continually rage about freedom of access to healthcare, cruel widespread slaughter in the practices of the largely hidden meat-industry, and increased censorship in colleges around the world. Captain Fantastic works towards a hypothesis that says the ideals of cultural and societal services shouldn’t be thrown out with the dirty bathwater: in this case, the faulty, corrupt practicalities that plague their current forms. It’s the trying that counts.
The film’s points are generally well made, in a fashion both visually engaging and through virtue of an intelligent script. Ben’s kids are astonishingly eloquent, providing humorous scenarios when pitted against the disengaged, desensitised figures of their traditionally reared cousins. The family’s modified school bus and hippy-inspired outfits single them out against the monochrome dreariness in the attendees of their mother’s funeral. But by this point, we’ve warmed to them enough to understand their gregarious fashion choices.
There are faults with the film, albeit few. It seems to me unlikely that Ben would employ the militaristic language he increasingly uses with the children later in the film. Surely he would be as contemptuous of the army institution and its methods as he is of the pharmaceutical and financial sectors? It makes the task of his father-in-law (imposingly played by Frank Langella) an easy one when fighting him for custody. He need only to point to the children’s newly furnished armoury of elite bows and bowie knives. The film’s argument might have been even stronger had Ben not instilled this militaristic bent; his way of living harder, therefore more interesting, to refute.
In the end, the warning is clear. Any philosophy taught to the exclusion of others is limited, and, in extreme cases, can amount to child abuse. This holds even when that philosophy is the one currently upheld by popular Western academics, and many wider intellectuals in the last century. Tolerance, inquisitiveness, criticism and cynicism all have their limits, even if they do provide value and meaning to life in healthy doses.