“Captain Fantastic,” film directed by Matt Ross, 2016
This is a film that was excoriated by some mainstream film reviewers – Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian calling it “fatuous and tiresome,” “phoney-baloney,’ and ‘cult-like,’ while the leading character was a contradictory ‘pro-Buddhist’ atheist and ‘pompous and preposterous.’ One-star!!
On the other hand, if you are not a fan of what is left of mainstream culture, it is pretty funny. Viggo Mortensen (a Hollywood leftie) plays the father, Ben Cash. He is taking care of 6 kids of various ages in the Oregon or Washington woods the old hippie way. They raise their own vegetables, kill their own meat, play their own music, study their own curriculum and learn skills like rock-wall climbing. Into this isolated Eden intrudes a problem. Their depressed mother, who had left them to go to live in Arizona near her mother and father, commits suicide. This subject becomes the plot of the whole film. The family decides – against the wishes of the woman’s father who blames the daughter’s depression and suicide on Ben – to go to the funeral anyway. One of Ben’s kids agrees with the grandfather, so there are more problems in paradise.
And so the family embarks on their visit to that other planet – the U.S. of A. All of them are atheists, so they fool a cop who stops their bus ‘Steve” by singing religious songs. They visit a roadside cafe offering pop, hamburgers and fries. Ben the dad says they are leaving because there is no real food on the menu. They ultimately rob a store (…) to make their own dinner over a campfire. Instead of Christmas, they celebrate “Noam Chomsky” day, and dad hands out high-quality knives as presents. Ben parades his nudity at one point and discusses sex frankly. Being physically fit themselves, the children are stunned by how many fat people there are in the U.S.A.
Arriving at a relatives’ house in the suburbs, the children drink wine in front of their kids during dinner, to the dismay of the relatives. They actually tell the truth about the death to the relatives’ kids too, instead of lying about it. At one point, when questioned about his home-schooling, Ben brings his 8-year old daughter down and compares her knowledge of the Bill of Rights to the relatives’ older children. This somewhat tactless behavior is apologized for, but funny nevertheless. They make fun of the massive stores and feel discomfort in the gigantic house the grandparents live in. They are intent on an atheist cremation, per their mother’s wishes, while the grandfather wants a church and casket burial. They disrupt the funeral service, to which the father was not invited.
Early in the film, the 18 year-old son Bodevan at one point announces that he was a Trotskyist and is now a Maoist. Ben responds by telling him, “Stay away from Marxism!” When do you hear that kind of dialog?! I won’t tell you the rest, but ultimately their anarchist ‘deep ecology’ cultural politics do not split the family, in spite of Ben’s risk-taking with his children. The son, Bodevan, goes off to travel in Namibia instead of accepting college offers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth that his mother helped him apply for.
Ben is supposedly ‘Captain Fantastic’ - but the real problem here is whether families like this actually exist. The ghost of hippiedom haunts Republican and Democrat Amerika in the form of real people and real policies to this day. We all know this. But whether ‘deep ecology’ families live in idyllic settings right now is up for grabs. Certainly the resonance of the film comes from the fact that actual people are doing many of the things this family does. The director himself grew up in somewhat similar circumstances, raised by his mother. As to the climbing scene, the leading rock climber in the U.S. took his 6-year old up a mountain in real life. Yet ultimately its ‘factuality’ is not the real point of the film – it is a polemic of sorts against right-wing capitalist culture. I did not see it as a film pretending to be about a real family, as Bradshaw did.
The film ends by one of the young girls telling Bodevan as he’s leaving for Namibia, “Power to the People!” and “Stick it to the Man!” The funny part is that these slogans are still on-target 50 years later. And yet no film made in the present day ever says them. That must be why Mr. Bradshaw really went nuts.
Other posts on hippies below: “The Hippies Were Right,” several commentaries on the “Grateful Dead,” a “Hippie Modernism” museum show and a book review: “Daydream Sunset.”
January 29, 2017