Captain Fantastic is a 2016 film directed by Matt Ross and stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash. The story follows Cash and his six children sequestered away from society, living in the woods. Cash and his wife decided to live separate from society, vigorously training their children to be at their peak of mental and physical ability. They train in hand to hand combat, climb mountains, practice first aid, improvise music and read voraciously.
The children are encouraged to read fiction and nonfiction, widening their understanding of alternate systems of government and wealth distribution. Cash will also probe them for their opinions and understanding of the texts they read, encouraging learning and understanding. There is only one wrinkle in the little utopia they have made for themselves, as Cash’s wife has been hospitalised to treat her acute bipolar disorder.
When Cash finds out that his wife has killed herself, he and the children make the decision to travel from their Pacific Northwest Forest home to New Mexico to attend the funeral, despite the warning from Cash’s father-in-law that he will be arrested if he shows up.
The bulk of the story is this field trip back into civilization and the mild culture shock the children experience. Practically every child has a personal arc; they’re all fascinating and I have no idea how Matt Ross got certain performances and moments out of these children. For example, George MacKay (playing Bodevan) has trouble engaging with other people his own age and is flustered when talking with girls. This is clearly a result of his social isolation, but he has been accepted in practically every Ivy League University in the country and has to decide if he even wants to go.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film and the discussions it raises by countering the social constructs that determine what we feel is acceptable for children to learn, in what order and in what way. Cash and the children stop off at his sister’s house for a night and argument erupts over Cash’s life style, as it has often done in the past. Cash proves that his children do not need to attend a regular school as his children are better educated and more inquisitive than his sister’s. It is hard to argue with his evidence, but boiling down regular school attending children to two disengaged, video game playing, disrespectful children is a little dishonest.
Cash never lies to his kids and always answers their questions regardless of the subject matter, trusting that they are wise enough and mature enough to handle anything, where his sister and her husband trip over themselves trying to protect their children from the harsh realities of the world. The solution, I believe, therefore is to be parents as encouraging and a part of your children’s lives as Cash is with his. At the end of the day, that decision is up to the individual parents to decide how best to raise their kids; Captain Fantastic certainly puts forward an excellent argument for being engaged with your children.
Words by Jared Berman
This review is a part of SWINE Magazine’s Melbourne International Film Festival coverage.