“We are defined by our actions, not our words.”
What does it mean to be a good parent? Is it doing what you can so the child is ready for the world? What if you think society is by and large a failure? Can you teach your children to be “philosopher kings” by stepping away from all the flaws of the everyday world? The family we see in Captain Fantastic may seem to be a brilliant experiment—or it may seem to be a form of child abuse. How do we decide how to think about this family?
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is raising his six children off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. For the last ten years they have hunted and raised their own food. They exercise daily. They learn to protect themselves, read and discuss. In some ways these children are advanced far beyond others their age. But they have no social interaction outside the family. Ben has been raising them alone for the last three months while his wife has been in the hospital dealing with mental illness. After she dies, Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella) is angry, banning Ben from the funeral. Ben and the children load up their bus and head to New Mexico in spite of the threats. For the younger children, this is the first experience of the outside world. It is a challenge for them, and at times for Ben, as they encounter all the things they have avoided through the years.
The family has been educated in a very countercultural fashion. They celebrate Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas. They view consumerism through Marxist eyes. There is a sense of anarchism, but they have developed a clear moral code. Ben seems to have no qualms about leading the family in a huge shoplifting spree at a grocery store, nor with giving them lethal weapons (even the youngest). They disrupt the funeral, but do so because Ben’s wife would not have wanted a service like this.
The grandparents and other family all want what is best for the children—and so does Ben. The question is what will be best for them? Would it be better if they had been raised like their cousins who are constantly in front of screens and don’t know even the basic concepts that define America? If they had been raised in the world of McDonalds and Walmart, would they be as mentally and physically fit as they are? On the other hand, the oldest son, Bo (George MacKay) would like to go to college, but has no social skills, which becomes apparent when he connects with a girl at a campground. Is it possible to be outside of society and yet be a part of it?
The crisis for Ben comes when he discovers that he may have short-changed his children, even though he feels he has done the right thing all along. Perhaps, he comes to think, they would be better off with people who can care for them in other ways. He may even wonder if his ego is in the way of the well-being of his family. All these years he has believed that he has set his children first in all things. But what if he has been wrong?
Parenting is a challenge. Often we look around us and see what others do and think it must be right. New parents read the latest books on childrearing and resolve to try to form children into good people. For Ben and his wife, it seemed like another way would be best—would save their children from the corrupted world. So they tried to take them to an Eden. In the beauty of the natural world—with no screens or technology—they fashioned children that they thought would be prepared to live full and productive lives. Were they right? Are they the best parents ever or the worst? That is the question we ask ourselves at various times in the film. It is also the question that parents may often ask themselves over and over through the years.
Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street