5-11 May 2017 #857

Captain fantastic

The film is a portrait of some wonderful but flawed human beings who deeply believe in a certain way of life
Sophia Pande

Veteran actor Matt Ross has written and directed a film that is fresh, engaging, entertaining and infuriating. Captain Fantastic is a heavy-hitting independent film, which screened for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016 and a few months later at the Cannes Film Festival in the “Un Certain Regard” category reserved for young savants. Surprisingly, the film broke out of the caveat reserved for such free-spirited, artsy films, earning a Best Actor nomination for Viggo Mortensen, who is at the helm of this unusual family drama.

Mortensen plays Ben Cash, a determined father of six whose outlook on American life embodies the slightly nauseating trope that people spout when eviscerating the evils of capitalism and expounding on the importance of human freedom and individualism, as if manifest destiny is all that matters in this complex, deeply stratified, often difficult to navigate modern world. Carried away by grand notions of how they should live (like noble savages), the Cash family has removed to the woods where the children learn survival skills and are homeschooled in philosophy, literature, quantum physics and other impressive topics; Noam Chomsky is their hero.

At some point, watching this beautifully shot, wonderfully written film, every alarm bell starts to go off in your head as you begin to gauge the exceptional but also possibly damaging effects this kind of rigorous parenting can have on young minds. Spouting liberty and freedom and forsaking consumerist capitalism is all very well, just as anarchy seems fun when you’re young, until you realise that isolation is as harmful to the psyche as video games are to the imagination, and simple living is a choice made only by the highly privileged.

Luckily, this is not a film that tries to indoctrinate. Instead, it is a portrait of some wonderful but flawed human beings who deeply believe in a certain way of life, and are brought into direct confrontation with the defects in their ideology. When I was training for my Masters in Fine Arts, specifically film-making, one of my most impressively academic professors gave us some invaluable advice: when you are making a film about ideas, make sure you include a voice somewhere that argues against the holes in your model so that the people watching know that you don’t think you are infallible. Captain Fantastic follows that advice, and succeeds because of it.

Watching this film gave me a funny feeling: a mixture of deep concern along with moments of delight, hilarity and sadness. Until I went away for higher studies I was raised in Nepal, where the teacher’s word is (still) law; having been muffled for so long I can testify that there is much to be said for giving growing minds the freedom to really explore. But, as this film ultimately recognises, almost everything is okay as long as it is not over the top.

Watch trailer:

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