Captain Fantastic is a Fantastic Fable
Is Captain Fantastic is a fantastic film? –Yes.
Is it a fantasy? –I hope not.
Is Captain Fantastic a fabulous film experience? –Yes.
Is it a fable? –I suppose, but in a good way.
For everything else it might or might not be, it is one of most inspiring movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s an organic film, though that could be construed to mean that it’s about carbon footprints and healthy food and hippie philosophies. It’s beyond those things. The story carries themes of independence and self-reliance. It’s also about a family that rejects conformity and convention–not to be rebellious, but because they see modern conventions as flawed and wrong. And it’s about courage–not the physical kind (though that’s there too), but the psychological kind: knowing you are an outsider, shunning the safety and comfort of the herd, yet holding the conviction that you are, within yourself and as part of a very small tribe (like a large family), sufficient and enough. It’s organic because it’s a good story without need of imaginative fiction, gratuitous violence and sex, or special effects.
The acting—especially the family–is superb, but all eyes are on Viggo Mortensen (as Ben Cash), who is certain to be nominated for best actor. His character has the clear–eyed resolve of a visionary–or a fanatic. His struggle, in addition to grappling with nature, is guiding his motherless children with the proper measures of patriarchy, pedagogy, and tough love; outside the herd, there’s little room for sentimentality.
The ideas are big: reject the values and beliefs of the dominant culture, live off the grid and on the land; bring children into the world and imbue them with knowledge – the knowledge of the First Peoples with regard to the land, and the knowledge of the great writers and thinkers with regard to society. Arm them with skill and fitness and teach them to conquer fear. Yes, the physical fear, but also the fear that comes with isolation: society is not kind to those who opt out of it. Expose them to Art and craft. Finally, embrace them–most often without words–and give them a tiny tribe to belong to, new rituals and all. It is the Swiss family Robinson willfully marooned in the mountains of Oregon.
The question that asks itself over and over in the hours since the credits rolled, is “Why the title “Captain Fantastic?”
As it turns out and because I looked it up, the director did not wish to reference comic books or an old Elton John album. He was coy about what he did mean, however and left it up to us, the viewers, to decide for themselves. And so my interpretation:
Once his wife took ill, he was very much like the captain of ship, far out at sea and battling the elements en route to a far and promised shore. That kind of autonomy mandates authority, economy, unity and austerity: the ship and crew come first. [I was tempted to work with Captain Von Trappe in this, but it seemed a stretch]
As for the second part of the title, begin with the fact that he was, during the film, a single parent of six children. Add to that the facts: 1) he was a superb educator, 2) taught them to be independent; 3) gave them structure with discipline, and 4) showed them integrity. Then consult any number of fables and fantasies for an example of sacrifice where in order to save the very object of his or her love, the lover must be prepared to part from it.
It doesn’t get any more fantastic than that.