Do you enjoy a good story with compelling and memorable heroes and heroines? This monthly column features homeschooled characters in literature and film. Wish you had your own copy of the book or movie? Just click on the product image or text links to go to the author’s site or Amazon to buy it!
Despite its title, Captain Fantastic is not a superhero movie. It’s an unusual film about a homeschooling family living off-the-grid in the Pacific Northwest. However, you could say the dad – played by Viggo Mortensen! – is a hero to his kids. (In our house we use the affectionate term “Captain Dad.”)
Mortensen was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Ben Cash, the free-spirited patriarch of six children, who is disillusioned with capitalism and the American way of life. Ben loves his children, and he is the ultimate dad who devotes himself completely to their physical, mental, and philosophical education. He raises them with sharpened knives and sharpened minds, combining the ideals of survivalism and socialism.
This unconventional family is so radical, I’m surprised they don’t have a poster of Che Guevara hanging on their wall. They are well-versed in the ideologies of Marx, Trotsky, and Mao. Their favorite catch-phrase is “Stick it to the man!” Even if you don’t like their left-wing political leanings, it’s intriguing to watch how they learn knife-fighting skills along with the cultural theories of Noam Chomsky.
The movie starts out looking like “The Relaxation Channel” with beautiful footage of spectacular mountain scenery, green forests and ferns. This tranquil setting is the North Cascades in northern Washington State. Ben and his family live self-sufficiently in a private wilderness paradise where they hunt, fish, forage, and grow their own food. They have crossbows, but no guns.
The children have grown up far outside mainstream society, believing that “Americans are under-educated and over-medicated.” After dinner, instead of watching TV they discuss quantum physics, read classic literature, and play improvised music around the campfire. Unlike Nim’s Island where at least they had solar power and the internet, here the kids are so isolated from modern civilization that they know nothing about popular culture. For example, Nike is just the Greek goddess of victory to them.
The Cash family’s alternative lifestyle, although seemingly far-fetched, is portrayed very convincingly. Writer/director Matt Ross (aka the snide Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley) actually drew from his own childhood growing up in a similar environment (as described in this article). Courtney Hoffman, the costume designer, also did a wonderful job on the eccentric characters’ motley outfits.
In this family, the parent and child relationship is based on complete honesty, constant curiosity, and open discourse. They are never talked down to or spared from the harsh realities of life and death. Ben and his wife (before she was admitted to a mental hospital) have devoted their entire parenthood to homeschooling their kids to be rigorous critical thinkers, training them like professional athletes, teaching them to thrive without modern technology, and demonstrating how to co-exist with the natural world.
All of the children are not only in exceptional physical shape, they are intellectually far advanced for their age. In addition, they each have their own quirks in their interests and the way they dress, making them a fascinating group of characters.
Nai, 6, though the youngest, is a capable hunter and rock climber just like his older siblings. He can also accurately define the word “fascism,” and goes around saying “Power to the people!” A true child of the forest, Nai prefers to be nude whenever possible. He also likes to wear a whale costume.
Zaja (Zaj), 8, collects road-kill and is an amateur taxidermist who keeps a collection of animal skulls in a secret treehouse, overseen by a picture of Pol Pot. She knows a lot of medical terminology like “pneumothorax,” “blunt force trauma,” and “splenic flexure of the large intestine.” When Zaj isn’t wearing a bobcat hat, she dons a gas mask.
Rellian, 14, unlike the other five kids, has re-focused the critical thinking taught by his parents back on their very lifestyle and parenting choices. In the campfire scene at the beginning you can see him reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevski. The novel is about three brothers who, as they grow older, start to rebel against the ways of their father. Just like Rellian himself does later on in the movie.
Kielyr and Vespyr, 15-year-old twin redheads, share a special bond and a secret non-verbal language.
Bodevan (Bo), 18, is highly intelligent. He receives acceptance letters from Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, and Brown University. His father responds in a surprising manner:
Ben: “It’s very impressive. So I took you to the library and you snuck around behind my back, taking SAT tests and contacting universities? We’re not an accredited home school. I don’t know how the f— you did it. I guess you somehow managed to create acceptable transcripts, get your work approved… all without my knowledge or approval.”
Bo: I just want to go to college.
Ben: You speak six languages. You have high math, theoretical physics! This is what I’m talking about! What the hell are these people going to teach you?
For reasons you will find out in the movie, this oddball family is suddenly compelled to leave their wilderness utopia and go on a road trip. Ben and the kids pile into the family bus / bookmobile and off they go. But after coming out of seclusion, it won’t be long before they get into a culture clash with the rest of the world.
On the drive, the unorthodox father is not afraid to have frank discussions with his kids about taboo subjects like rape and sex. There’s even a scene where Ben stands buck naked in the doorway of the bus, in the middle of an RV park. Shown from a comfortable distance, it mainly focuses on the shock and embarrassment of two elderly passersby.
Driving past a shopping mall, Ben says: “Here we have the embodiment of Calvin Coolidge’s statement that the business of America is business. Our democracy is one of the brightest lights of social justice in the history of humankind, and yet most of our fellow citizens engage in frenzied shopping as their primary form of social interaction.”
Upon arriving for their first time in the city, everyone looks at them as if they are freaks, and vice versa. The first thing the kids can’t help but notice is all the fat people:
– What’s wrong with everyone?
– Are they sick?
– What do you mean?
– Everyone’s so fat.
– Yeah, they are.
– Fat like hippos.
– That’s not nice to say.
– But look!
– Okay, you can think that, but we don’t make fun of people. Right, dad?
– That’s right. We don’t make fun of people.
– Except Christians.
Yep, you heard it, I can’t believe the movie came right out and said what we all know, that leftists are tolerant of everyone except Christians. At one point the children actually pose as Christian homeschoolers, but in a mocking way. This family thinks religion is a fairy tale, and instead of celebrating Christmas – which they believe glorifies a “magical, fictitious elf” – they observe Noam Chomsky Day in honor of a political philosopher.
The Cash family briefly stays at Ben’s sister Harper’s house. She and her husband try to convince Ben that his children should be given a traditional education, reprimanding him for the “ridiculous” way he’s raising his kids. Harper insists, “They need to go to a real school, so they can get real jobs.”
Ben replies, “Is knowing how to set a broken bone or how to treat a severe burn ridiculous? Knowing how to navigate by the stars in total darkness, that’s ridiculous? How to identify edible plants, how to make clothes from animal skins, how to survive in the forest with nothing but a knife? That’s ridiculous to you?” Then he proceeds to demonstrate that 8-year-old Zaj not only can recite the Bill of Rights word-for-word, but can explain what it means in her own words. Which is more than Harper’s older children who attend public school can do.
Ben also has a confrontation with his wealthy father-in-law, who wants his grandchildren to have a normal life. The children consider their grandparents’ mansion in New Mexico “a vulgar display of wealth” and “an unethical use of space.” Though they don’t hate Nana and Grandpa, Nai proclaims that “the rest of their tribe are fascist capitalists.”
Ben refuses to let his family eat in a restaurant because there’s no “real food” on the menu. (He refers to soda as “poison water.”) Now here’s where they show themselves as liberal hypocrites. hey decry consumerism, and yet they shoplift supplies from a grocery store, crafting an elaborate getaway plan and calling it “Mission: Free the Food.” So basically they don’t believe in buying stuff, but they have no problem stealing it.
This examination of a homeschool family is so unique that it’s difficult to classify. It can be seen as a touching drama for older teens and adults, as well as a fascinating social commentary. Although the Cash family is very different from most real-life homeschoolers, many aspects of their curriculum are comparable to educational approaches adopted by homeschoolers across the country. (See also: “Homeschooling in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Showcasing a Complex Cultural Movement in America Today.”)
Watching how the Cash family tackles the natural world and then seeing their confrontation with the civilized world was a bit of an eye opener. This movie begs the question of whether these kids were raised properly or not. When Ben decides to take his children out of seclusion and into the world, you will soon realize that he has also begun a personal journey that challenges his ideas and brings into question everything he’s taught them.
While viewing this movie, the audience is forced to do the same thing. Why is it weird that these kids don’t know that Nike is a brand of sneakers? What should an education consist of? Who should decide what’s best for a family – the parents? grandparents? society? In the end I think it’s all up to each individual family unit, their particular circumstances, and the choices they make together.
Note: This movie is rated R for the brief nudity mentioned above, and some swearing (including the f-word, said in anger when the characters are upset). There is one gory scene involving the slaughter of a wild animal.