Captain Fantastic – Cliche and Complexity


Another Saturday rolls around and its one of the first in a while where we have nothing on. What an awesome feeling… and the morning gets spent reading the paper, watching the paralympics and enjoying ‘second breakfast’.

I scan the movie schedule for something to take the kids to and see Captain Fantastic showing at the Luna, which probably means it a low budget indie and is maybe gonna be on iTunes or SBS in a week or two.  I google a few (very mixed) reviews, watch the youtube preview and decide that it might just be worth it. While Sam stays home, Danelle, Ellie and I head down to chill and take it in.

Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it…

The story follows the journey of an off the grid home school family living deep in the forest and surviving off the land while learning 5 languages, various non-conformist, political ideologies and engaging in intense physical fitness training, all under the guidance of dad who I am guessing is the  ‘Captain Fantastic’ of the movie title.

Early in the movie we learn that mum has died – suicide due to mental illness and the news is presented starkly. There is an extended ‘mourning’ scene with no background music – just crying kids and a stoic father. The absence of any music allows us to feel the loss more intensely.

The remainder of the film follows the family as they go on a road-trip in ‘Peter’ the family bus and seek to attend her funeral (from which they have been banned) and as they encounter ordinary people in real life America and discover they are more different than ever imagined…

It explores a number of interesting themes albeit in a cliched way at times. The kids observe their cousins addicted to devices and struggle to understand their obsession. Dad takes the family out of a cafe because there is no ‘real food’ on the menu. The family’s natural bluntness in speaking is offensive to their relatives and we are challenged by our aversion to telling the truth at times. But this is countered by the sister in law who suggests we need to tell kids what is appropriate rather than giving them all the info all the time.

Dad appears to be an open minded free thinker. He swears & drinks around his kids and they swear & drink too – even the 5 year old – all very permissive and open minded, but when one of his kids asks if they can celebrate Christmas like everyone else, rather than their own ‘Noam Chomsky day’ the child is first demeaned and ridiculed before being told to present his case to the rest of the family who are in support of dad. Like he’s going to do that now…

We see the irony of a family built on non-conformist thinking  that persecutes its own non-conformist. Huh…we all live with complexity and incongruities don’t we?

The tension of conflicting worldviews is interwoven effectively as we see bi-polar mum leaving the forest to enter a mental hospital because she needs help from ‘the institution’. The grandfather is presented as the over-indulgent, (Christian) capitalist and the epitomy of all the family has stood against, yet he is able to see the flaws in their idealistic lifestyle and we have to agree that he has a point… He doesn’t come across as a caricature, but rather just a contrary view.

And the villains are… you guessed it… Christians! As the kids have their first experience of the city they ask their dad ‘why is everyone so fat?!’ And the response is ‘don’t make fun of people. In fact don’t ridicule anyone’, followed by a pause and a postscript, ‘except Christians’.  When the police pull the family bus over for having a faulty tail-light they manage to dispose of the cop by singing a cringeworthy hymn and appearing to be complete weirdos.

Then the mother’s funeral held in a church to the ire of the father, is sabotaged by him because he believes she would have preferred a self styled buddhist type of cremation. As we follow the story, we see that the mother is conflicted and torn between western living and alternative living so at times its hard to know what she really wanted. I think this is intentional – we are always torn between ideals and pragmatics. In the end the family exhume her body from beneath a tombstone with the words ‘Rest in Peace Cared for by God for Eternity’. As the dig begins the youngest is heard to say ‘can’t have her living under this bullshit for eternity’. The subsequent ceremony is accompanied by euphoric music and all of the joy that is not present in the church. 

Its a movie that explores anti-establishment ideals and shows them to be both beautiful and inspiring, but also problem ridden and ultimately unworkable.

The final scene has received a fair amount of critique in reviews, but I thought it was exceptionally well done. The family finish up together again in a semi-rural home, (minus eldest son who takes off to Namibia – because he stuck a pin in a map with a blindfold on) attending school and living a more conventional life. The bus has become a chicken coop and to some degree they have settled. It raises the question of whether ‘compromise is inevitable’, and we wonder ‘what’s next’ for this mob. Will they end up conforming like everyone else? Does the dream have to die?…

I’m no tree hugging, mung bean munching hippie, but I do hope to live somewhat differently to mainstream western society. My aspirations are rooted in the kingdom of God rather than a secular humanist ideal, but here too the tensions of having to live in society  are very real.

I watched it with my 15 year old daughter and we had a good conversation about it after, but if you’re taking kids be aware there is a fair bit of language and one short full frontal male nude scene.

1 thought on “Captain Fantastic – Cliche and Complexity

  1. I loved it..i am a mother of 4 grown kids,2 grandbabie’s, and I found that I wish i wasen’t so afraid to be real and honest with my kids.Yes somethings were alittle harsh.I wouldn’t want my 12 year old saying the F word. But i find myself saying it all the time as an adult…I think we should be honest with our kids..the real truth. Maybe as adults we would be able to handle things alot better because we wouldn’t of had things sugar coated for us…Its a must see for tree huggers and just people that are alittle more open….

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