Captain Fantastic: Better Off Dead, by Josh Long
I’m sure that you, like me, are immediately wondering if Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic has anything to do with Elton John’s classic album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The answer, sadly, is no. No dulcet piano ballads, no catchy riffs, no heartfelt autobiographical choruses. However, if you hate Elton John and love self-righteous polemics on mainstream American society dressed up as family drama, then you’re going to love this one.
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has heroically gone off the grid of greedy, corporate American society, and is raising his six children in a self-sustaining, ecologically responsible, GMO-free paradise somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The children (ranging from ages 8 to 18) have, through rigorous training, become brilliant, self-reliant super athletes, the kind of super humans that (of course) can only be created in an anti-materialist, left wing commune with total separation from American society. When the serenity of their Shangri-La is disturbed by their mother’s mental illness and subsequent suicide, the family decides that they will travel to her funeral in New Mexico. Ben’s in-laws don’t want him there, as their blind submission to the status quo has turned them against him and his intellectual utopia. As the family meets with trouble along the way, they choose to do whatever they want, validated by their ubermensch superiority. When Ben is briefly forced to question whether he’s making the best choices for his family, the children quickly reinforce the ideas that he’s drilled into their heads, complete with a moving quote from (who else?) transcendent intellectual, Noam Chomsky.
These people are unrelatable, unrealistic, and insufferably self-righteous. Almost every minute spent with them is misery. But the film seems to believe that we will dote on their perfection, and wish that we too could have this kind of childhood. The reality of their upbringing should be immediately suspect – can a man who disdains college education have the ability to teach teenagers quantum physics? Fortunately for the logic of the film, the “America” in which these characters live is populated with stupid, fat straw men, slaves to “the system,” every one. In case we weren’t getting the message, the film is jam-packed with cringeworthy scenes of puerile normal people completely befuddled by Ben’s angelic master race. They could be funny fish-out-of-water moments if it weren’t for the painfully obvious fact that the filmmakers want (nay, need) us to know that Ben’s brood is better than everyone else.
The sole conflict in the film surrounds the mother, and whether or not she might have been able to get better help if the family hadn’t been off the grid. It’s also hinted that one of the children, Rellian (all of the children have names made up by their parents to be “totally unique” so that no one else in the world has their same name, barf) overheard conversations where their mother had said she didn’t want to live that way anymore. But those questions are never really dealt with and easily quashed by a) the fact that the mother said things like this when she was mentally ill and b) the reveal of a letter sent to her own mother in which she raves about their home and the way they’re bringing up their children as “Philosopher Kings.” For inexplicable reasons, this cues Ben to decide to leave the children with their grandparents, to live a more structured life. Not surprisingly the kids follow him (smuggled in the floor of the family bus – the bus’s name is Steve), validate everything that he’s done, and they all go off together to steal their mother’s coffin and burn her body, as per her wishes.
The way the children follow their father points to another, more disturbing problem with this movie. For all the film’s rhetoric about “thinking for yourself,” or “sticking it to the man,” it positively celebrates the intellectual stranglehold Ben has on his children. He has taught them to be Maoists, Buddhists and anti-capitalists, and still has the naïveté to believe he has taught them to think for themselves. The film shares this naïveté and believes that anyone encouraged to think for themselves will come to the same conclusions. This, of course, allows the children (and the filmmakers) to see everyone else as stupid, blind, and/or lazy. Scattered moments give an eerie glimpse into the film’s ethos, such as picture of Pol Pot cut out and hung on one child’s wall, and a moment where the children remind each other that dad has taught them it’s wrong to make fun of anyone, “except for Christians.” Additionally, the film legitimizes the efforts to separate them from society, so they aren’t polluted by the stupidity of inferior ideologies. I say this as someone who grew up homeschooled and believes in it whole-heartedly. But complete separation from anyone who disagrees with you and insulation with a particular set of ideals is indoctrination, not education.
Viggo Mortensen was surely glad to hop onto this project, as his political ideologies seem to line up pretty closely with Ben’s – in 2003 he recorded an album with guitarist Buckethead and dedicated the album to Noam Chomsky. I can only assume that Matt Ross (best known as an actor, appearing in Big Love and Silicon Valley) shares these sentiments; I’m not sure how anyone who didn’t could paint these characters in such a bewildering panegyric. Perhaps they feel that they’re doing the world a service by pointing to the kind of perfect life to be had disconnected from evil, mainstream America. And if so, good for them. Unless you’re on board with that worldview, you’re likely to be bored by a two hour lecture from unrealistically perfect humans, hiding inside the Trojan horse of a toothless family drama.