Captain Fantastic

 

            It's misnamed.  You expect some kind of superhero movie, or maybe even some kind of ironic satire, but this is neither.  Oh, there's a social message, all right, but it's front and center.  No need for spoofing or subtlety here.

            Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, a modern-day hippie.  He lives in the woods in the Pacific Northwest with his six kids.  He home schools them, insisting that they not only read the classics, and summarize the plot, but also be able to crtique.  He teaches them everything from literature to music to quantum physics, and they all appear to be both precocious and brilliant.  But they're also very isolated.  They'll go for days without even seeing anyone outside their immediate family.  The kids haven't grown up interacting with other kids at school, so they are awkward and shy around others.  Where's Mom?  Well, she's gone, because she's been sick.  As it turns out, she suffers from severe depression, and Ben mistakenly thinks he can help her, maybe even “cure” her, with their purist lifestyle, but alas, she goes home to her parents in a prosperous New Mexico suburb and slits her wrists.

            Her parents blame it all on Ben.  He insists that their lifestyle choices were mutual decisions.  But her Dad, Jack (Frank Langella), will have none of it.  He tells Ben over the phone that he's not welcome to come to the funeral.  Nor are his children.

            At first,  Ben accepts this awful estrangement, but the kids, taught to think for themselves and speak out when they disagree, all work on Ben to change his mind and take them to their Mother's funeral.  And so it's off in the hippie bus we go, sleeping under the stars along the way, and foraging, just like at home, except it's not as easy to do that in a suburban shopping mall.

            When they finally arrive at the grandparents' house, it turns out to be one of those McMansions on the golf course.  Jack has obviously been very successful.  He's also very full of himself, and smarmily threatens Ben with calling the cops if he dares to come to the funeral.  So, Ben being Ben, comes anyway:  dressed in a painfully inappropriate bright leisure suit, kids in tow, and when the hapless minister admits he didn't even know the deceased, Ben stands up and tells it like it is:  she was a Buddhist, she wanted to be cremated, not buried, and she would have hated everything about this smugly pious funeral service, and she wanted her ashes scattered in a very public place, down a toilet.

            Everyone is stunned, of course, but Jack somehow manages to get the ushers to escort Ben and the kids back out the door, whereupon the minister resumes his bland blandishments as if nothing were awry.  (We ministers are nothing if not officious and oblivious.) 

            There's one “rescue mission” that goes awry, when one kid gets hurt trying to get another kid out of Granddad's house.  But the other “rescue mission” is a resounding success:  dig up the corpse, and spirit it awy for a proper cremation ceremony out in the wild, where we sing not “Kum Ba Yah” but “Sweet Child O' Mine”? 

            Director and writer Matt Ross has given us a lot to think about in this provocative, offbeat social commentary that is equal parts awkward, unsettling, humorous, and prophetic.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Current funeral arrangements are not always traditional.  What kind of funeral do you envision for yourself? Your loved one?

2)                  What aspects of American culture do you feel are most harmful to the growth and development of children?

3)                  What aspects of American culture do you feel are most helpful to the growth and development of children?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association