Captain Fantastic: Life outside the grid

Captain Fantastic, a film about a family’s journey from isolation and into the outside world, is a thought-provoking exploration of our modern society.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Captain Fantastic © Cineworld
Captain Fantastic © Cineworld

Captain Fantastic opens with a bird’s eye view of the forests in the Pacific Northwest. As the viewers are invited deep into the jungle to watch the gruesome killing of an elk, we are introduced to this ‘dysfunctional’ family of nomads (in the true hunter-gatherer sense of the word) – six kids and a devoted father, who has dedicated his life to transforming his children into ‘extraordinary’ adults.

While movies generally want you to root for the guy with the hip radical lifestyle, Captain Fantastic takes a different approach. From the very introduction of its protagonists, the movie encourages viewers to question the extremity of the lives they lead far away from society. The father, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), rejected capitalism and lives off the grid, taking his family with him to create this unique world; truly believing that what he has done for his family is incredible.

A screening of the film in Moscow © Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design

Hunting and training during the day, reading during the night (Karl Marx, Nom Chomsky and George Eliot ), the children have the ‘cardiovascular and muscular endurance levels of elite athletes’ and are equipped with the knowledge to be ‘philosopher kings’. The kids are happy, extremely clever for their age and even more mature than their father at times. An idyllic upbringing, right?

Bodevan (George McKay), the eldest, serves as the litmus test for Ben’s anarchist dream. Even though it’s ironic that Bodevan uses all his knowledge to get into every Ivy League university there is, it is proof of the success resulting from the unique childhood provided by his father.

But when the plot turn has the family venturing into the real world for their mother’s funeral, the flaws of such isolation from society becomes clearer.

Leslie's last will and testament
Leslie’s last will and testament

“You made us freaks!” the boy Rellian accuses his father. Bodevan, following the embarrassing outcome of his first kiss, screams at Ben, “I know nothing! I know nothing! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!” As the close-knit clan threatens to break to shreds, Ben starts to question the decisions he has made as a parent.

As the story arc with a few convenient plot points roars to its resolution, what Captain Fantastic achieves is the rare feat of a warm family drama that leaves you with a desire to re-examine your way of living. By questioning the leftist radicals in the protagonists, Matt Ross’s (Gavin Belson of HBO series Silicon Valley) second directorial venture shifts the limelight to our modern day society and its failings and shortcomings.

Captain Fantastic is a powerful film powered by the performances of a wonderful group of young actors and Viggo Mortensen’s starring turn as the father – all set in expertly portraying the values of a strong family while also laying out a balanced argument between a life away from our modern pleasures and one neck-deep in it.

Before you go back in to take the dip, here’s Ben’s life advice to Bodaven:

“Always tell the truth. Always take the high road. Live each day like it could be your last. Drink it in. Be adventurous, be bold, but savour it. It goes fast. Don’t die.”

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