Thursday, 1 February 2018

Captain Fantastic

After days of reflecting, I still can't decide if this film gives us a naive fantasy or actually has something meaningful to say! It will be hard to discuss it meaningfully without giving anything of the plot away, but I will do my best to limit the damage. It was premiered at Sundance and received nominations for a Golden Globe, BAFTA and at the Oscars - so it must have something going for it, so here goes....

The Cash family have been living an alternative lifestyle in the Washington wilderness for a decade and the six children have all been home schooled. Their parents had good jobs but as anarchists became increasingly disillusioned with mainstream capitalism and withdrew. The family endure a punishing daily fitness regime and are skilled in hunting, mountaineering and a wide range of survival techniques. They live as a mini commune where the parents teach them multiple languages, history, philosophy and politics - all from a position of a strong liberal critique. For me, this film idealises a bohemian bourgeois hipster lifestyle.

The children also learn grammar and calculus as well read the classics on a predetermined schedule to make sure they keep up. Educationally they are years ahead of their peers. The kids are not indoctrinated and are taught to understand and value all sides in a debate but there is little doubt that they are chips off the old block and by osmosis have absorbed their parents' views on most things. Another view would be that through their own inability to engage and change society from within, that both parents are guilty of child abuse on a huge scale.

All is going well until something forces the entire family to travel on the family bus, named Steve, all the way to New Mexico. En route and once there, they have to engage with regular people and this exposes the one thing they are not proficient in - being socially appropriate. This behavioural segregation sets up a number of encounters which if the film is a fantasy are comedic and if it is trying to communicate something serious, extremely sad. Perhaps because for me the film's intention is never clear, I can't decide what kind of film it is.

For me, the film sets out a 'compare and contrast' scenario where the idyllic and altruistic family life of the frontiersman/woman is set against the harsh self-serving individualism of twenty-first century consumerism, where identity is expressed through consumption. For me the film offers a binary choice without offering the opportunity to select which elements of both opposing ideologies could be woven together to create something whose sum is greater than their constituent parts. For me the film puts forward both a thesis and an antithesis but produces no synthesis! Disappointing - or is this the work I am meant to do? Perhaps the way the film ends leaves the door open for a sequel that might explore that.

This film could have been so much more but loses it's defining edge because it is so introspective, which leaves me feeling very frustrated. It does however offer a fertile springboard for discussing the ills of Western society - but in the end does it offer a viable alternative? Overall I remain disappointed which means I must award it 6/10 - but this is a film which is not easily forgotten and I may have to return at some point and be a little more generous.

1 comment:

revbobsblog said...

I enjoyed this movie more than you did, Duncan, though I agree some of it is problematical. The children are taught the value of dialectics, and this movie is certainly dialectic. The clash between a hypo-thesis and its anti-thesis leads to a new thesis, in this case a new way of being family. By the end of the movie the dialectic seems to be resolved. Not hypo-thesis A or anti-thesis C but, we presume, an acceptable B (or maybe D?) We are not shown or told how the grandparents – or children - come to agree with this resolution, or define the essentials of living it out, and that is a shame, but I can see how detailed negotiation in the last reel would defuse the dramatic tension.

The film may end with a rather conventional solution, and not everyone will find it satisfying, but at the very least it comes about after an engaging, often amusing and sometimes rather moving argument and narrative, one that visits the horrors of modern American (and increasingly the Western) lifestyle, with its waste, obesity, rampant consumerism and alienation from both the natural and philosophical realms, but also points out the isolationism, desocialisation, and ultimately dysfunctional nature of the extreme survivalist/back to nature impulse. We do need to find a way to live ‘in this world’, even if we do not want to be ‘of this world’, being properly dismayed by many aspects of it.

Post a Comment