The cult of Captain Fantastic

IT’s a cult. No, a modern Swiss Family Robinson. Nah, this dad – even if it’s Viggo “Aragon” Mortensen — is just nuts!

But Captain Fantastic is both exciting – you should see the sporting scenes and how the children steal food – as well intellectually stimulating.

captCaptain Fantastic is about Ben Cash (Mortensen) and his soon-to-die bipolar wife, Leslie (Trin Miller) who is living in the temperate forests the US’ Pacific Northwest. I’ve been there, and the forests are as beautiful as shown through the lens of Stéphane Fontaine (2012’s Rust and Bone).

Leslie’s in hospital, and Ben is in charge of their six children – Bodevan, played  by George MacKay, Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell).  Notice their names? They are unique, says Ben, like his children. Er, you also can’t tell which of the younger ones are girls or boys as the clothes and hair are not giveaway signs.

It’s extreme parenting by today’s standards. The opening scene is of the eldest, Bodevan making a solo kill of a deer with just a knife. It’s bloody.

The family lives in the wild. There is no electricity, no running water (as far as I can tell), and everyone sleeps outdoors or in an American Indian-looking white tepee. They play guitars, a cajon box drum, and other instruments at night around the open fire.

Ben is told, on a trip into the nearest village (the movie was filmed in Carnation, Washington among other places), that his wife slit her wrists and died.  He doesn’t hide the truth from the children. He’s honest with this fact, as with other things like the youngest asking about sexual intercourse. That got a medical explanation that everyone should hear.

Leslie’s death is really the catalyst for change in the Cash family.

They decide to attend the funeral, but Leslie’s father (Frank Lagella) has taken the body for a Christian burial somewhere in Albuqueque. Ben finds his wife’s will where she stated she wanted a cremation as she was a Buddhist.

The vehicle is a converted school bus. How cool is that?! Along the ride, Ben stays with his sister (Kathyrn Hahn), her husband and two teenage sons.

At the dinner table, it’s handphone cheer for her children who are also rude to her, while Ben’s children are waiting to engage in conversation. Ben also proves his home-schooling ways have made his children more educated .

They family stops overnight at a recreational park, and Bodevan meets a girl but doesn’t know what to do with her or how to talk to her.

At the funeral service, Ben gives a eulogy which insults the faith of his in-laws. After that brouhaha, one child decides to stay with the grandparents rather than go back to the forest.

Ben lets another sibling climb the roof of the in-laws’ house to get the boy out but she breaks her leg in the fall. The doctor compliments Ben on how strong her bones are, like that of an elite athlete.

At the end, the Cash family seem to opt for a life less off the grid as they are now attending school. In the final scene, Ben is at the breakfast table, presiding over his brood as they do their homework with fresh garden produce in the kitchen. He looks out the window, this father who has sacrificed everything to raise his children “right”.

What a tale! Is this the right way for you as a parent? He has chosen to raise his children away from the consumerism of today. And they have turned out, in this film by Matt Ross who is also the writer, far more intelligent with the eldest son gaining entrance into every tier one university in the US. He applied “behind his father’s back”.

Kudos to Fontaine or telling the story through his cameras, and also paying homage to the landscapes with natural light cinematography.

While Mortensen steals the limelight for his portrayal of a dad who did it all for his children, including being appearing in his birthday suit, Ross has captured the corner on discussions of how to bring up our children today.

Captain Fantastic offers the extreme view on this matter, but the film slyly portrays his point of view with Lagella playing devil’s advocate.

The movie is intriguing for that concept. It’s also wistful about what modern people are losing, a connection to nature. Ross won the 2016 Cannes Festival’s Un Certain Regard director prize for this movie, among other awards elsewhere.


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