Captain Fantastic, Homeschooling, and The Man

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.


24 thoughts on “Captain Fantastic, Homeschooling, and The Man

  1. I had high hopes for this movie and still want to see it. My recent homeschool grad is an aspiring filmmaker. She also tires of the homeschool stereotypes in film and fiction. My daughter said she’d love to make a movie that features a homeschooled family who isn’t religious, weird, isolated, or socially awkward–just interesting people who live and learn in a different way.


  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful review. I watched the film yesterday, and had very similar reactions to some of the film’s antics. The beginning was indeed bizarre, and, to a degree, off-putting in how grossly unfitting was the coming of age ritual to the subsequent portrayal of the family. Fortunately, the next hour or so was a bliss. While I didn’t think any individual character in the film was very well developed, the character of the whole family was done superbly. But the last quarter of the film amounted to a huge disappointment, with the final scene being the worst cinematic ending I had seen in a very long while. While I understand that it was to signify the acceptance by the father, Ben, of the death of his wife, and the failure of their journey into the wild to save her, it was poorly thought out and executed. The dialoges between the father and the children, on the other hand, made me want to instantly re-watch the middle part of the film, and I can see myself returning to it again and again in the future.

    You draw a few comparisons to some other films about homeschooling, with the majority of them being documentaries. I must admit that I haven’t seen any of them, and they are now on my list of films to watch. But I’d like to ask you for titles of any other fiction films featuring homeschoolers (beside “Off the map”). I’d love to explore them, even if they leave a lot to be desired. Search engines weren’t very helpful, unfortunately.


      1. Ah… I do, of course, appreciate books, and had AHEM’s books page in my bookmarks, but wish there were more (realistic) fiction films out there featuring homeschoolers. Thanks for the link – it made me look into whether you are, indeed, a bay stater. I’m glad to have discovered another fellow homeschooling parent from MA on the net. Looking forward to reading more of your posts, both old ones and new!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks a lot for your review, i’m a young dad, not so young but with a young child, and i have to admit that i was not so happy with the end of the film, and with some points of the film, which are those you’ve pointed. I didn’t point the end, because i was tired. Your article has helped me a lot to understand the vision of the realisator. Your vision his true, i have to watch it again. I was so happy with the beginning and everything until the end, that i’ve forgotten the end. I’ll watch your references.
    Somethings i’ve thought during this wonderful movie was i wasn’t a superman as the hero is in this film. He’s so powerful, and it’s something i’m not because i’m a real man, and he’s not. Real world is pretty like in the movie, but there is a frontier, a line which is can’t be reach by a normal man like a dad like me. I’m able to provide my son the best i can do, but i can’t do all the things that man provides to his children. But… Why at the end is he letting his children go to school? Why is it the end? It’s not a logical consequence.
    Sorry for my langage, it’s not my mother langage (i’m belgian and i’m speak french). Anyway, i have been seduced by the subject, because during the first hour, it’s the exact way i want to teach my children (except the military way).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that much of what the dad does with his kids is very admirable. There was much to like about the movie but for me, those elements couldn’t transcend the story problems.


  4. Everyone, rewatch the ending. Vigo says the bus will be here soon, the oldest daughter rolls her eyes, and they all go back to independant study. It was sarcasm. After the scene between the public schools cousins and the Vigo-schooled 8 year old daughter, it was clear the film makers views of modern public education. They did NOT go to compulsory school. They only moved to a slightly safer, more established homestead. The hunting scene at the beginning that you did not like, that is what they likely stopped doing. The scene of the homestead appears to be more farmer and less hunter than their woodland utopia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! When I first saw the film, I did wonder whether the ending was sarcastic, as it seemed so absurd. I don’t think the evidence supports that it was (for instance, what were those brown bag lunches being packed for?). I also felt the views the film conveyed on modern education were more complex–yes, in the scene with the public school cousins, the message was clear, but there were also clear messages that homeschooling in the extreme way portrayed in the film can make kids into social misfits. Social misfits in a good way, some of us might say, but the larger point, I think, is that the film was about the trade-offs between living a conventional life and a boldly unconventional one. I love that theme, and as I hope I pointed out, I think there were many good things about the film, I just think ultimately it was flawed.


      1. I just finished the film and googled “Captain Fantastic homeschool” to see what others thought. I didn’t think the ending was sarcastic, but I also didn’t think the children would be going to school. Just as the kids hid in “Steve” instead of actually moving in with the grandparents, this seemed like the father was truly ready to send them to school. And they planned to just keep studying at the breakfast table. To me it seemed like the conflict was established in the last scene, of course it didn’t say what would happen, but I guess that’s up to the viewer.


  5. I just finished the film and googled “Captain Fantastic homeschool” to see what others thought. I didn’t think the ending was sarcastic, but I also didn’t think the children would be going to school. Just as the kids hid in “Steve” instead of actually moving in with the grandparents, this seemed like the father was truly ready to send them to school. And they planned to just keep studying at the breakfast table. To me it seemed like the conflict was established in the last scene, of course it didn’t say what would happen, but I guess that’s up to the viewer.


  6. Good comments. I thought ending was brilliant. I felt they made it look like it was the first day of school and that the father had intentions of sending the kids to school but when he saw how content the kids were to work at the table for an extended period, it gave me the distinct impression that the father would decide to continue homeschooling in this new house/acreage….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He was packing their lunches with their names on each bag. He was serious about the bus. He was happy the little one was finally reading a picture book and yet GO TO THE LIBRARY and get all the juvenile books you want for free and have your kids interact with HUMANS there and not steal the books but check them out and do normal human things. You don’t have to get them X-boxes to have them try to be “normal.”


  7. HATED the ending. Seriously there is a medium between being a sheep in society and being a freak outcast. We have homeschooled 5 kids for 10 years and nobody can tell they are homeschooled because I take them out into public daily. They transact with cashiers, they talk to people and look them in the eye. They can talk about pop culture. So yes, we fit in while at the time purposefully try to fit “out” just a little bit. Instead of school, how about you homeschooling in the country and get off your butt and drive to the city sometimes and teach them how to grocery shop for real instead of steal crap? That would have been a better ending than GIVING UP.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi there,
    I read the Wikipedia entry that they ended up going to school. We watched it (we unschool 4 kids) and the end is clear to me that they continue their life at home. He makes the comment “school bus is coming, get ready” but its a joke. There is no bus and they have packed their lunch for their usual daily trip into the woods. I really enjoyed this movie and was a bit hesitant to show my kids as they are all teens and do wonder about school. I would have not liked it to end the “usual way”. The director done a fantastic job with this film to also make clear how sick society is. I love it when a movie is entertaining but also stimulating.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Apparently I’m about 6 months late watching this but I, too, was appalled by the obvious needs to be “Hollywood” (the teen love story, the opening scene). But most appalling of all was the ending. It was confusing to the point that I sought out internet opinions (a rare occurrence). Your indication that this is to make the audience feel better about their own choices is dead on. The ending was so counter-intuitive to anyone who knows the real value of the choices Ben made that it confused the whole film.

    A great film overall – too bad it needed these deviations in order to satisfy the masses.

    Liked by 1 person

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