Captain Fantastic Shows Us an Ideal Life, and the Costs

Captain Fantastic invites us to experience passion and loss as one family tries to understand their place in the world. The film asks when is going to extremes going too far? And what does it mean to understand truth? Is it possible that real truth may not be as objective or universal as we would like it to be? When are we pursuing our own truths, and when are we selling out?  Ben  (Viggo Mortensen) and Leslie Cash (Trin Miller) are raising their family off the grid in the Pacific Northwest.  The film opens in the forest, and we see a deer, and then we see Bodevan  (George McKay) hiding in wait, hunting this animal with nothing but his quiet surprise and a knife.  He takes the animal with a lunge and sure swipe of his blade.

Almost immediately I wanted to be part of this family, live with this family. Since childhood I have fantasized about being strong enough to live on my own, be one with nature … having the strength of Tarzan, and the wit of Batman.  I know — sounds nuts — but I was child of 70’s sci-fi (which to me even Star Trek was, but because I watched in reruns on fuzzy over-the-air TV.)  I always loved gadgets and gizmo’s, but I also always loved the idea of ultimate peace, and the triumph of our species over ills plaguing the world. In the opening minutes of Captain Fantastic, this family seemed to have found the answer. It didn’t include technology or spaceships, but it looks a lot like paradise from within. But … at almost 50, I understand that no one gets out alive, and we all have our demons.

As I was falling in love with this family, we receive the tragic news of Leslie’s suicide, and the apparent contradiction is immediate:  If this lifestyle solves all problems of the materialistic modern life, then how is it that Leslie is dead by her own hand?  Is there room for some hybrid hippie/hipster/modern practical lifestyle that simultaneously helps us expand as humans while remaining safe?  Can we be true to ourselves, our values, and our beliefs, and still be a part of the greater society?

Ben is fierce and unrelenting in his instruction to his six children.  Can we teach our kids to be brilliant, and not destroy them in the process? Kielyr, his oldest daughter (Samantha Isler,) tells him about the book Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov. She says it is “interesting.”  Ben responds that “interesting” is a non-word. While Ben educates his children, he also imbues them with his own sense of rules, thinking, and beliefs. I can’t help but wonder how much of this contradicts his desire for his children to be independent thinkers and self-sufficient?

Kielyr sympathizes with the main character even though he essentially rapes Lolita, while also hating him because of his behavior.  She identifies with the beautiful portrayal of his love, while is revolted by his actions.  Ben has taught his children something virtually every institution of higher learning defines as core to mission:  Critical Thinking. The ability to make decisions and judgements, and consequently take actions based on observations and experience. But does this translate into the  world outside their forest cocoon?

After Leslie’s suicide, we become part the family’s odyssey as they return to civilization, an attempt to honor Leslie’s last wishes. Driving the family school bus, Ben play’s tour guide as they enter the city, “Here we have the embodiment of Calvin Coolidge’s statement ‘that the business of America is America’s business.’ Our democracy is one of the brightest lights of social justice in the history of humankind.”  We see legions of chain stores, fast food restaurants and a billboard reading “Is it immigration or Invasion?” The connection to the next scene seems clear.  The family celebrates Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas, or any other traditional holiday for that matter.  

Gifts are weapons, so one can hunt and feed oneself. Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton,) one of the middle children, is not happy about the made-up holiday. He calls Ben a crazy person and wishes they could celebrate Christmas like regular people.  Ben responds, “You would prefer to celebrate a magical fictitious elf instead of a living humanitarian who’s done so much to promote human rights and understanding?  Okay, well let’s have a discourse.”

I had to look Mr. Chomsky up to see who he is, and if he is a real guy.  He was born in 1928 and he has been teaching at MIT since 1955. The real Chomsky is an intensely private person, and completely uninterested in fame. I wonder how he would feel about a holiday in his honor?

Is there some honor in forsaking what others think — what society deems normal — even to the point of danger?  What kind of future would our society have if people did it all for themselves, instead of relying on the systems and institutions we have put in place?

Rather late in the game we are given the man vs man personal conflict: Ben vs. Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella — reliable as always).  While Jack and Ben do square off, this weak link connection feels forced, and strays from the films emotional center in favor of a more mundane Earthly blame game.  Jack blames Ben for Leslie’s death. There is an entire silent discussion about depression and mental illness.  We are left to our own thoughts to determine what drove Leslie, and whether or not her mental illness was neglected.

Jack want’s Leslie to have a traditional Christian burial.  Ben fiercely defends his wife’s wish to follow her adopted Buddhist traditions.  But Jack has the power and money and society — and apparently the police — behind him.  To be fair, the film goes a little off the rails here, requiring some above-and-beyond “suspension of disbelief,” but this is also where heart and beauty take over.  What is not entirely believable is made up for with emotion and a pretty damn good music montage, and some really sweet images of the kids saying goodbye to their mom. How do we stay true to ourselves, and those we love, and not alienate the world and those same loved ones in the process?

When a pretty young girl at a campground kisses Bodevan, he barely knows how to respond, and when caught by her mother, he drops to one knee and offers a sincere proposal of marriage.  The girl and her mom think he is joking, but Bo is doing what he thinks is the right thing to do. This is what complete knowledge of ethics looks like.

His realization that he cannot survive in the world feels visceral and profound, and also awkwardly painful.  With his mother’s help, he has secretly applied to all the Ivy League colleges, and has been admitted to all of these elite institutions, a fact he is clearly afraid to share with his father.  When he finally does tell his father, Ben’s response is, “Bo, you speak six languages! You have high math, theoretical physics, what the hell are these people going to teach you?” Bodevan responds, “I know nothing!  I am a freak because of you!”

It doesn’t matter how brilliant Bo is, or how much he knows. He is alone. Personally I don’t mind being alone from time-to-time. I actually like my alone time. But I do very much want to be able to get along in the world, to have friends, to navigate relationships, to build experiences with others.  Can I be as strong as Tarzan, and as smart as Batman while also living a full life? Those guys are pretty big loners (and I don’t count Robin!)

Ben and his children are searching for ways to make peace with the world, and Leslie’s loss, but also with each other.  How do we reconcile a materialistic society that doesn’t even kill it’s own dinner-table chickens with knowing ourselves, respecting ourselves, and creating a future where understanding, love, and compromise are the keys to life?


Trailer –

Noam Chomsky –

Buddhist Funeral Traditions –

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