Captain Fantastic, a film by Matt Ross. With Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd. ***1/2
The father figure in Captain Fantastic, a man named Ben (Viggo Mortensen), reminds me of a teacher and coach I had in secondary school. He was an extremely difficult but fair teacher, who got the most out of us or broke us. He was also the best coach I ever had—my line coach in football—who sent us into the trenches, told us exactly what to do, then let us sink or swim, and didn’t seem to particularly care what happened. He wasn’t a rah rah guy, but a teacher. He was happier when his student made a good block than when the play went well. He focused on his balliwick.
In every way I can name, he was a model human being, but there was nevertheless something a little goody two shoes, middle white America about him. I can’t imagine getting slightly drunk with him and saying what we really thought. I can’t actually imagine him having a drink. He had children, but I can’t imagine him having sex (except in order to procreate, with a warm smile on his face. He’d drink a glass of milk afterwards). He didn’t seem quite human.
Ben is like that. He’s moved to the wilderness to raise his six children, living in what he refers to as paradise. They live off the land, and know how to do that; they do rigorous physical training every day, including some kind of martial arts; they are homeschooled but extremely well-educated; at night they sit around the fire reading excellent literature—books like The Brothers Karamazov and Middlemarch, until their father starts strumming his guitar and they all grab instruments and break into song (a little unbelievably, I must say). I did notice that Captain Fantastic himself wasn’t reading a book. What’s up with that? He’s read everything?
Captain Fantastic’s wife—the mother of all these beautiful children—is “sick” and “has to be in the hospital now.” It turns out she’s bipolar and eventually commits suicide. (Ben makes a brief statement—which I partly missed—to the effect that her depression began as postpartum depression with the one of the children. He says that in front of the child, which struck me as a little too truthful. I thought he also made some mention that the move to the wilderness was partly in the hope of making her better.) Her father (Frank Langella) blames Ben for her death—“You did this to her”—and forbids him from coming to the funeral. The children won’t be deprived of a chance to say good-bye to the mother and vote to go anyway. The weird homeschooled children take off in a kind of Merry Prankster’s bus to meet 21st century America.
Ben’s prize creation—or at least the one that the movie focuses on most—is his oldest son Bo (George MacKay). He constantly has a weirdly intense look on his face—as if fighting a bad case of diarrhea—and is absolutely brilliant; he has applied to a huge list of elite colleges (with his mother’s help somehow; I didn’t understand the logistics) and gotten into all of them. But he’s perpetually tense, doesn’t know how to carry out the simplest social interactions, and when a girl at the trailer park comes on to him, giving him what are presumably his first kisses, he gets on his knee and proposes to her, in front of her mother. Apparently that’s what happened in Middlemarch. He knows a lot, by anyone’s standards. But everything he knows—as he complains to his father—comes from a book.
I expected to like this movie more than I did. The trailer looked good, and it looked like a serious work of art. It is. Director Matt Ross said he got the idea when he was having children of his own, and trying to raise them in the 21st century. I understand that the way Ben brings up his children is an implicit criticism of the way the rest of us live, and I don’t disagree with it. We should all know how to start a fire in the woods, and kill a deer with a knife (though I don’t). We should all chow down on the raw heart after we’ve killed our first deer.
But when the family needs food, and they go to a supermarket to “liberate” it—Ben faking a heart attack while the children make off with the goods—I understand that’s a criticism of capitalist society, but it’s also illegal. When they celebrate Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas, they’re implying that Chomsky is more worthy of admiration than Jesus Christ. Really? (I understand that they’re criticizing a schlocky holiday, and Noam Chomsky was a great thinker, but Noam Chomsky Day?) But the moment that sealed the deal for me was when they were at a trailer park in that big bus, and an elderly couple walked by, and Ben walked out of the bus stark naked, saying something to the effect of, “It’s just a penis. We’re all animals, you know.” Does he really think he’s a superior person to those old folks, who I’m sure know what a penis is but also have a sense of dignity and decorum. Does he fancy himself a prophet who’s out to change the world? I think he’s fundamentally decent, and is trying to raise his children the right way. But in that moment—and not just then—he was a self-righteous asshole.
There are lots of things wrong with contemporary America—with contemporary everywhere—but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to pay for your groceries. I agree that it’s better to read Middlemarch than to play violent games on the tube, and that his children are well-brought-up. He loves them, and they love him. But there’s a balance, where you don’t violate your values but live in the world you’ve been given. I used to see a number of Amish people in Sarasota when I visited my mother there, and they didn’t flaunt their lifestyle at me. Ben is a great teacher, but he’s a flawed human being. It would be better if he didn’t teach so well, but was a nicer man.
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