In a public radio interview this week, Matt Ross, writer-director of “Captain Fantastic,” explained that he felt the key thing in his film about parenting and family life is to raise questions rather than answer them.
His film certainly does that: it raises a host of questions about the advantages/disadvantages of an unplugged rearing and education program. But it also raises questions, quite a few in fact, about how fairly Ross himself is playing the game. For he seems to be pulling more than a few punches.
The intriguing situation in his film is this: somewhere in an isolated forest in Washington State, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller, seen only in flashbacks and dreams) have raised a brood of six children far from the madding crowd.
The unusually absorbing opening sequences catch a family that believes in home-schooling, growing and gathering its own food (even if that means killing a deer with a knife), making and washing its own clothes and expending maximum energy through things such as martial arts and rock climbing.
While the family’s confrontation with the contemporary capitalist world does validate many of their presumptions about rampant consumerism, conspicuous consumption and materialistic self-centeredness, it also exposes considerable flaws in the Cash off-the-grid school of rugged individualism.
Their are signs early on that Ross isn’t always playing fair though. Even given the rigors of an intense home schooling and the possibilities of genetic inheritance, how likely is it that every child would operate virtually at genius level?
At nighttime you catch an entire family absorbed in books or reading material with deep concentration. Then they break into a spontaneous music session by the campfire. Well, you can lead a child to literature and music but you can’t make him think.
Not everyone is a reader or so inclined. What if one of the children were dyslexic?
But the movie wants you to believe that given a lack of Internet connection and strong parental supervision, every child can study his way into the Ivy League as eldest, Bo (George Mackay), already has (behind his father’s back though).
(How Bo means to square his Maoist convictions with the privileges of an Ivy League education is never addressed.)
Next in age order come the fraternal-twin redheads Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso); rebellious 12-year-old Rellian (Australian Nicholas Hamilton); 8-year-old Zaja (Shree Crooks); and the littlest Nai (Charlie Shotwell), who’s always asking awkward questions.
Ben answers those questions with honest, plain, often painful truths, the kind most parents “shield” from younger children. This sets up an interesting, yet again contrived and somewhat unbelievable, confrontation in parenting styles when this neo-Swiss Family Robinson sits down to dine with Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and brother-in-law (Steve Zahn), who are trying to be sympathetic.
Ben’s matter-of-fact answers to awkward questions about his wife’s death bring the meal to a sudden halt. Later, when his sister challenges his home-schooling ideology, he uses Nai’s knowledge of the Bill of Rights, in contrast to her sons’ fumbling guesses at what that document may be, to demonstrate the superiority of his approach.
Only the child actor is clearly reciting lines learned by rote and not really at an age where history/legal lessons of that sort would have sunk in yet. You don’t buy the scene.
Nor do you buy other questionable moments in the screenplay that may be designed to isolate flaws in Ben’s hippy methodology but seem more like moments in bad late ‘70s movies.
The kids may not understand the ways of the world but Ben certainly knows that appearing buck naked in public is a no-no. Worse yet is the apparel he does don — a blazing red hippie outfit that would have been gauche in the ‘70s —for his wife’s funeral service. No, never.
And what is Ross trying to say about Ben’s leftist ideology when he has a father teaches his children how to shoplift in “Operation Free Food?”
I’m not saying the film doesn’t raise thoughtful questions about modern parenting versus more old-fashioned methods. While the Cash kids may not know how to surf the ‘net or speak to girls, they certainly are skilled in history, politics, higher math and survival abilities. This is a family that discusses serious issues seriously.
It’s not clear, of course, why they need all those survival skills unless Ben means to keep them locked up in their forest paradise forever.
The family’s journey to their mother’s funeral — in a family bus dubbed “Steve” — is an act of defiance against Leslie’s staunchly conservative and wealthy father Jack, who has forbidden their attendance and vowed to have Ben arrested, a genuine threat to the family’s ability to stay together.
As played by Frank Langella, Jack at first seems set up as the movie’s inevitable straw man. His mind is too closed to even embrace his own grandchildren (as his wife fervently does) and he embodies the kind of Ruler of the Universe mentality the Cash family so abhors.
But here Ross is determined to play fair as Jack asks the kind of questions all of us are asking as the movie unfolds and points out, dramatically, that continually and unnecessarily exposure of children to dangers in the wild is child abuse.
The film finds a final note of compromise that some may find a letdown and, as Ross apparently wishes, leaves a bunch of questions unanswered.
One thing for sure, “Captain Fantastic” is one of the more provocative and engaging features of 2016 and worth catching if only for a lively debate afterwards.
Opens; July 8, 2016 (Bleecker Street)
Production companies: Bleecker Street, ShivHans Pictures, Electric City Entertainment
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George Mackay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd
Director-screenwriter: Matt Ross
Producers: Lynette Howell Taylor, Jamie Patricof, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson
Executive producers: Nimitt Mankad, Declan Baldwin
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Music: Alex Somers
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Editor: Joseph Krings
R rating, 119 minutes