Movie Monday: Captain Fantastic

I looked forward to seeing this movie, which was pitched largely as a fish-out-of-water story. This one involves a father and his six children, who were raised off the grid in rural Washington state, and their clash with current American culture.

Think “The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” or “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The usual theme is that the rubes turn out to be wiser than the sophisticated, worldly elites.

This story is a little complicated. The man’s wife has committed suicide after treatment in a mental health facility. (We learn in retrospect that she had reservations about the life she and her husband were bequeathing to their children.) Father and children travel to the mother’s family home in New Mexico for her funeral, which is to be religious, in opposition to her expressed preferences.

And the little culture clashes are fun.

— At a restaurant en route, one child asks, “What is cola?” “Poison water,” says the father.

— In another situation, a child reveals that she understands Nike to be a Greek god, and is unaware that it is also the name of a company that makes athletic products.

— The children are puzzled by their cousins’ obsessions with cellphones and offended
by their violent X-Box games.

All fine and good. The actors seem natural and believable, and the movie proceeds at a nice pace.

But the film strains credulity when it posits that the children of the forest are impossibly more educated than everyone else. I don’t believe that 13-year-old boys read “The Brothers Karamazov.” I don’t believe seven-year-old girls have a nuanced understanding of the Bill of Rights, even if it is funny to watch one show up her adolescent cousins in a demonstration.

And this leads me to a leetle problem with the premise.

The father, played here by Viggo Mortenson, loves his children, but he has indoctrinated them with an anti-establishment philosophy that scorns religion, modern medicine and capitalism, among other cultural constructions. The oldest son understands the differences among Leninists, Trotskyites and Stalinists, and he rejects them all because he personally is a Maoist. (Are there still Maoists outside the CCP?) The family does not celebrate Christmas with gifts from “a magical fictitious elf” but rather Noam Chomsky Day.

In my experience, revolutionaries like the father do not retreat from the world but agitate against its flaws. I would expect a man of such beliefs to raise his children as activists who join the struggle. After all, the children’s traditional greetings are “Power to the people!,” answered by “Stick it to the man!” How can you stick it to the man if you are isolated in a forest?

I do not know survivalists, but I’ve heard of families who have taken several steps down that road. Generally, they have been very fundamentalist Christians offended by secular society. As their children have grown to maturity, they have chafed and become resentful of their parents’ rigidity. In this movie, Captain America lets go of some of his methods, but the kids don’t challenge the beliefs he has pounded into their heads.

Imagine if this movie’s hero was one of those narrow-minded Christians instead of a narrow-minded ultra-leftist. Would the film show at Sundance? Would it get a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes?

My guess is no.

Another Thing

“Captain Fantastic” is a good title for a superhero movie. It makes no sense here.


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