Warning: Captain Fantastic spoilers follow!
There aren’t many movies made about homeschoolers, so when one comes out, especially one as glowingly reviewed as Captain Fantastic, I try to see it.
I watched Captain Fantastic last night, and I can see why it’s being praised. Viggo Mortensen is great. The actors who play his six kids are great. It’s beautifully filmed, and there are some wonderful scenes of the family both in their isolated, off the grid home in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and once they hit the road to attend the funeral of the family’s mom, who’s just succumbed to a long battle with mental illness and committed suicide.
Although I enjoyed the movie, some of it didn’t sit right with me. In the first scene, the eldest son takes down a buck with his bare hands and kills it with a knife while his siblings and father, all of them painted in camouflage black, look on. In a pseudo-spiritual coming-of-age ritual that seems completely out of character with the portrayal of the atheist, science-minded father that follows, dad serves son a raw organ from the animal (I think it was the heart), and declares him to be no longer a boy, but a man. That declaration also smacks of irony when “Stick It to The Man” turns out to be a family slogan, and it’s just one of the incongruities that keep Captain Fantastic from being as excellent as it could have been.
Ben Cash, the dad, is extraordinarily stoic, uses a harsh, military-style approach to conduct his children’s schooling and physical “training,” and makes his radical views clear to his children. He’s also a fierce patriarch who takes his job as a dad seriously, and his kids, for the most part, love and respect him. He clearly loves them, too, and is absolutely devoted to them, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense when, after they re-enter mainstream America by crashing mom’s funeral and doing some other nutty and sometimes dangerous things, he gives in to the pressure of family members who say that for the sake of the children’s well-being, he needs to hand them over to their grandparents.
He says farewell and hops into their home on wheels (a re-purposed school bus named Steve) and drives sadly away. It’s not long before the kids hop out of their hiding places in the back of the bus to show their never ending love and loyalty to dear old dad. Surprise (not)! The whole clan then engages in more over the top antics including digging up their mother’s body, cremating it, and dumping the ashes down a toilet as per her wishes.
Once the dad turned his kids over to The Man, I pretty much let go of any hopes of real character and plot development, and shifted my viewing perspective to Hollywood mode. The ending, however, put me over the edge. Dad relocates the kids so they can be closer to society. They still love to run around in nature and do nature-y things like collecting eggs from their chickens, but now they go to school. The last frame depicts their smiling faces sitting around the kitchen table, eating breakfast and diligently writing in their notebooks or looking at their schoolbooks, while Dad, who’s just lovingly packed each of them a homegrown lunch in a brown paper bag, tells them to come on kids, the school bus will be here soon.
Really? The politically radical, Stick-It-To-The-Man, Power-To-The-People guy has now relinquished his kids to the industrial school complex? Kids who, by the way, have been so well educated they will be leagues ahead of their peers (and probably their teachers), and so bored by the inane curriculum and arbitrariness that school dispenses, that the uncomplicated smiles on their faces would be, simply, impossible.
But, hey, everybody loves a happy ending, and what would an extreme parent who realizes the error (or at least the long term impracticality) of his ways do, first thing, to remedy his children’s lives? Send them to school, but of course.
I think the film wanted to explore questions about the real trade-offs of lifestyle and parenting choices, and the complexity involved in being a parent (a father, actually), and making hard choices. To its credit, it does raise those questions, but it could have delved into them more deeply, at least in the arena of homeschooling. For example, the children’s remarkable knowledge of literature, history, and government, their ability to engage in critical discussion of complex material, and the eldest son’s admission to several Ivy League schools (he applied on the sly), speak to the academic benefits of homeschooling in much the same way that simplistic portrayals of know-it-all homeschoolers winning national spelling bees and math competitions do. Meanwhile, the kids’ complete lack of awareness of popular culture and the eldest son’s first experience with a girl perpetuate the stereotype of awkward, unsocialized homeschoolers. We see very little ambivalence from the children about their lives, save for one younger sibling who feels very much like the token angry child, and a brief confrontation between the dad and the eldest son in which the latter shows the former his college acceptance letters.
Although they could have been more fleshed out, I did appreciate the close family relationships portrayed in the film. Other positives were the unflinchingly honest way the father talked to his kids, and the independence he granted them when he wasn’t acting as drill sergeant. The family music jams were pretty great, and I also liked the daughter’s critical analysis of Lolita, although I could have done without the father prying it from her, and his empty praise of “well done” once she produced it. Still, that scene and others like it clearly show that kids, when given the resources and opportunity, are more than capable of critical thinking at a level we usually associate with much older people. I loved, too, the murkiness of the gender of the two youngest children, and how relaxed and real they were on camera. I read in an article that in one heartwarming scene, the littlest picking their nose was a spontaneous action in the moment. That openness and lack of self-consciousness shows in the film.
Extreme stories of charismatic, domineering fathers who run the roost seem to be a theme in movies about homeschooling families. Surfwise and The Wolfpack come to mind. Those were documentaries, and in my opinion, are both better films than Captain Fantastic. It doesn’t have to be the case that watching adults and young adults raised in unconventional circumstances speak candidly about their lives is more effective than watching fictionalized characters, but in these instances, at least for me, the documentaries presented richer stories. As much as I’ve liked these movies and as much as I admire Viggo Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben Cash, I’m a little sick of the controlling father shtick. For a less sensational, more nuanced choice, I recommend the film Off the Map. Although the family it portrays is also living off the grid, at least it has a mom with a real voice.
While it isn’t the job of any film to be representative of a subgroup of people, when all I see in the movies is portrayals of homeschoolers as people with extreme views and lifestyles, or occasional cameos of homeschoolers as religious zealots or unsocialized buffoons, it gets a little tiresome. Maybe someday, filmmakers will Stick It To the Man enough for us to get some different kinds of homeschooling stories.