Movie Review: Captain Fantastic – Matt Ross 2016

Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016): A film about a devoted home-schooling parent and his tribe of feral kids –

The story goes like this: a couple decide to move with their kids into the Colorado wilderness, to raise their kids free of the oppression and the trap of consumer society. Mother falls ill, and father is left to raise their six kids, who all have wild hair and original names, on his own. He teaches them physical endurance, hunting, and the doctrines of Marx, the knowledge of Chomsky, and how to speak Esperanto (although they’re not allowed to use the language). They are a cheerful bunch of Spartans, quoting doctrines while doing yoga, and making music in the evenings, after hours of climbing sheer rock faces in the rain, in tank tops.

Then, mother, while away at a clinic, dies by suicide. Father, in his brutal frankness, tells all the children without hesitation what has happened to their mother. Full of sadness, they decide to do a day’s journey to attend the funeral even though grandparents don’t want them to come! You are indignant! How CAN the grandparents tell the son-in-law to stay away with his furry family, who are coming their way in an American school bus full of bunk beds? Despite leaving a restaurant when he sees they have hot dogs and milkshakes on the menu, he is truly a fantastic, dedicated, loving father. And now, they make their journey, despite having been shunned by the rest of the family.

Arrival during the funeral ceremony, father and his tribe, all dressed in hand-knitted ponchos, and with skulls and cornflowers in their hair, look hotly out of place among all normal people dressed in black. Father jumps up to the pulpit-thing to make a speech, telling everybody that wife was a Buddhist and had actually asked to be cremated and “flushed down a toilet”. Grandparents are horrified by the interruption and want son-in-law to leave. However, once everybody is outside, the grandparents embrace their grandchildren, and invite them all home, despite the embarrassment.

After initial fury at grandparents, you, the audience, can allow yourself to change your mind about these grandparents, who on second sight seem lenient, kind and rational. They are kind, normal folk, and also very wealthy and successful, and they live in a villa with a golf course and a swimming pool. A conflict in the making.

AND THEN…

No sooner the children arrive at the house and get to meet their cousins and all their cousins’ friends, they begin to take massive interest in life outside of their sheltered Spartan existence. Father watches in horror how all his ducklings quickly assimilate and thrive in the normal life offered to them! The daughters, about 17 and 18 years old, red-headed wilderness beauties, are now getting driving lessons from gorgeous young adult males in Jeep convertibles. Father is running about in his hippie gear, hair flying everywhere, frantically trying to remind them of their wilderness values. To no avail. Eldest son gets into Harvard, and grand-dad is going to pay his way.

You see a man transforming from Captain Fantastic Wilderness Dad, to deranged hippie, whose values disappear like sand castles in the face of daily life. You pity him, for he is being forgotten while his children embrace society. Was he really so strong? Did he stand for something worth standing for? Do we really still need to know how to hunt and flay deer, and how to spin wool?

To make matters worse, grandma shows her son-in-law a letter she once received from her daughter, saying that she was at her wit’s end and resented their life in the wilderness. She believed that the children should take part in society, and share their strength and wisdom with others. She just didn’t know how to tell her husband, and this was the reason why she had abandoned the family and ended up dead.

Father is utterly disillusioned and upset. You see a broken man. You experience feelings of righteousness for the truth of her message, but in the setting of the movie, you were also acquainted with some profound values that he was teaching his kids, and in your heart you know those to be true also. You have identified with the father, and now you are doubting him. What ensues is a clever plot-device which causes conflict in the viewer, making you think about what it is you believe.

After a few meaningful conversations with his children, father decides to return to his wilderness, alone. A few years pass. Then, somebody arrives at the village below their camp. It is the eldest son, now wearing normal clothes. He has passed school, and has a degree from Harvard, MIT and something else. His remarks show clearly that he has reached a sustainable middle-road between his radical beginnings and the celebration of technology, inexorable societal change and shared human transformation. He is well-educated, and now knows what Star Trek is. He is looking for his dad. Meanwhile, more siblings arrive at the town. They have planned this. Daughters are now women, married, strong, with their own children. Youngest daughter is now an athlete, middle child has gone into paid systems-hacking. Everybody is happy, toting smart phones, and looking for dad.

Dad is not at the camp. Dad is now a teacher at the local school. He is imparting his knowledge to others, sharing his values with more than just his six kids. His pupils love him, their parents respect him. You finish watching the film, relieved that it’s okay to like milkshakes and hotdogs, that we ought to know who Noam Chomsky is, and that Esperanto is a load of bull.

THAT IS HOW I THINK THE MOVIE SHOULD HAVE GONE…

In truth, the family dig up their mother’s grave, illegally transport her dead body in their school bus, and cremate her (!) on a funeral pyre in the mountains. While she is burning, the family sing a Guns and Roses song to perfect pitch and chord, looking like a boy/girl-band video clip in the Rockies. Grandfather’s attempts to house the children and finance university are spurned: eldest son chooses to go to Namibia “by putting his finger on the map, randomly”, and even daughter’s concussion doesn’t stop her from hobbling along through all the action on crutches. Later, they flush mother’s ashes down a toilet. In the last scenes of the film you see the daughters: young women, running and laughing in the hay, collecting eggs from a chicken coop in the sun, as if it were an advert with pastoral allure (“your products all come directly from the farm!”). Have these girls not gone out to find a mate? Nope. They are now in the kitchen, breaking walnuts open with their bare hands, reading Dostoyevsky and spinning wool.

WHAT?!?!??????

Moral: In good story telling CHANGE occurs. People struggle, and undergo change. You, the viewer, see development in the characters. You feel conflict, after initially committing to the main character, and are filled with the suspense of seeing a form of reconciliation with the elements.

In this story, no change occurred AT ALL. All we got was a setting.

Secondly: some characters were simply abandoned. The grandfather played a prominent role in representing the world of ‘normal’ people, as did Fantastic’s sister, and yet, these characters never ’rounded off’, were never given their share of the denouement, or resolution. So, they were static; part of the setting, if you will. They played no moving part.

Thirdly, long repetitive shots of someone’s face while they are driving are boring for the audience, and do not contribute to our rising feeling of concern and empathy for the character.

That’s all, folks.

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