I watched Captain Fantastic

Μετάφραση του κειμένου Είδα το Captain Fantastic.

Captain Fantastic is a film – a damning indictment of morality of modern lifestyle of the western world and of the capitalist values.

Fivos Makridis

[The following text contains elements that are revealed during the film and/or at the end of it. However, I do not think that a reader will be discouraged to watch the film, because it is not a mystery one].

As I was going to cinema, I felt that I would see a movie about the story of a family living consciously isolated from the rest of the society without enjoying material goods of western civilization. My mind ran in the film of Lanthimos, the Dogtooth, or even The Village of M. Night Shyamalan. In these movies, we also see isolated communities (on the size of a family, or a township) whose initiators have a sick perception of external risks and their decision to live in isolation, takes place without the approval of the new members (ie children), who live in the darkness and do not know anything about the outside world. So, at the end of these films, the collapse of these societies comes as a natural consequence, when the new members manage to escape.

Captain Fantastic, however, is NOT such a film! The story has again to do with a family who lives far away from the organized society. But here, the motive of the father and the mother had to do with the transmission of sound values to their children: their direct contact with nature (with the same respect showing primitive communities), the development of critical thinking, humanitarian attitudes, knowledge of philosophy and science, and contact with the greatest works of literature.

The trailer of the film (although it does not properly prepare you for the film).

A Couple of words about the plot

A father with his partner raise their six children (two boys, four girls) in a forest. They completely take over their education, in all the subject matters: science, literature, sports, music, etc. But from the beginning of the film the mother is absent. We learn early in the film that the mother is in a mental hospital and that she soon commits suicide. The family, despite the threats of the grandfather, decides to attend the funeral of the mother. It is the first time that the kids come in contact with the outside world.

Through their journey an ideal arena is erected, in which two different value systems are tested and confronted: the value system of the family against the conventional value system of modern capitalist western society.

The new morality of family

The family seems to have a marxist or pro-marxist approach of how they interpret the world. They see all religions as organized systems of power and as the worst invention of mankind, they react to the consumption patterns of capitalism, they condemn the fascists who, by the words of the little girl, are «violent nationalist groups who establish one-party dictatorships with the support of large companies».

And yet, children are disturbed when they first come in contact with the outside world, when they see the vulgar display of wealth from their grandfather (who lives in a big farm-house with golf course and with all the comforts) and the waste of public space.

The creator of the film, Matt Ross (director and writer), presents an allegory. He creates a fetched example (isolated family), not in order to suggest us to live in the forest and away from everyone and everything (moreover this proposal creates a weakness to have a simple communication with other members of society, to the extent that the teenager cannot handle a common flirting), but to challenge various aspects of the values that we have today, and we don’t even think about to question.

Conventional school vs faceted education

For example, the film questions the value of the school and the learning of the world in order to become members of a society and later get regular jobs. According to Foucault, the state has several structures to reproduce its authority (and by extension, those who control the state, reproducing their own power). These structures are the courts, prisons, and schools! I do not think that the film urges us not to send our children to schools (at the end there is a particular compromise about this), but, through this allegorical figure, questions the values, the program and the goals of the school. When children come in contact with their cousins, the father receives a criticism that he should send his children to school to «learn the world». This follows a scene showing that children with conventional education do not know anything about basic humanitarian principles, such as the Declaration of Human Rights, or what the Declaration is, or what it means for today, and to make matters worse they don’t even have the mood to learn and they become annoyed, when their cousins appear to be aware and have an opinion on these issues.

Moreover, the education these children are receiving is multilateral: from reading Guns, Germs and Steel to yoga and daily training in the mountain – and when they feel tired, they play music, they improvise together and they are dancing!

The film asks the following question: to what extent does the current schooling structure can inspire children to study, learn the world, read literature and produce integrated personalities with multiple interests? And when you see that the school toady has just the aim to prepare you for exams that will give you an access to university – not to be educated and to offer back to society, but to be able to get a job that you’ll work less and get paid more –then you wonder if this should be the goal of an ideal society for the education of new members or if, eventually, the school prepares you to the measures of the system.

Talking about the concept of violence

Another example has to do with the concept of violence. The film begins with the most violent scene. A young man (the older son), tracks in the forest an innocent and beautiful deer, until he manages to stab it, kill it and eat part from its heart. From this ritual he is “baptized”, he becomes a man from child. What a violent scene for us – who do not like to even get stained with blood.

Yet this scene attributes no brutality to our characters. It indicates that the contact they have with nature is similar to that of the primitive societies, who, even if they were deeply dependent on their environment and they had to hunt to eat, they faced their prey with an awe. In many cases they considered that killing an animal would mean to acquire its capacities. They would ask for forgiveness, if this animal was a protected animal of a god, and would only kill it to ensure their basic needs: food, clothing, making tools and weapons etc.

The violence coming from the family appears in contradiction with the (concept of) violence from the society of the western world in various film scenes. When the family gets hungry in the modern world, one teenage daughter will eventually refuse to kill a sheep in a meadow, because the sheep feels no danger and remains calm, looking the daughter who aims it with an arrow. «It just stands there», she complains and leaves.

In another scene, the rich grandfather temporarily gaining the favor of the younger son, invites him to play the hunter in a simulator inside the living room of his wealthy house. As a hunter the young son shoots ducks flying in the digital sky. While in another scene where the family eats together with their cousins in the city, the little girl asks if the baked chicken was slaughtered by an axe or a knife. Her aunt is shocked and explains that the chicken was already dead when she bought it.

With these scenes the film contrasts the “barbarian” hunter which in fact respects its prey against the “civilized” hunter who would kill for his own entertainment or the “barbarian” who slaughters against the “civilized” who is not using axes, but he is ok when the others use them.

It is like considering barbaric (which they were) the old wars with swords and civilized (which they are not) the modern wars, because now, the killing mercenaries do not even need to leave their countries, but can from the safety of their office, in office hours, direct drone warplanes,  bomb neighborhoods and cities, kill their enemies and unarmed civilians and later go home, meet their families, eat with cutlery and sleep with a clear conscience (and clothes).

Another scene, in which the film again challenges us about what we consider violent and what we don’t, is when the children who live in the woods and are using knives and guns, are shocked to see the electronic games that their cousins are playing, with the goal to beat and kill their opponents, apparently without cause and reason. Their cousins, which appear to have no interests, are addicted to violence and alienated (although live a “normal life” in “civilized” society), and, even at the family table, they are only interested in playing with their electronic consoles.

How do we protect the children? By hiding or revealing the trut

Another issue arising from the new values which the father wants/is trying to establish, is the question of the approach to the truth. Are there any limits to what a child learns in order to be protected from truths that they cannot handle? The film’s answer is no! A child needs to learn the whole truth, regardless how hard it may be, no matter how young the child is. Why? Because only then they will be able to know the world and to begin developing their critical thinking.

So, the father will not hesitate to announce to his children that their mother was suffering from a mental disorder and that she committed suicide at the hospital. Cruel father who does not protect his children through concealing harsh reality, or affectionate one who protects his children through exposing them to it?

This standoff is again compared with the situation of the cousins. When the older cousin asks about how his aunt died, the answer he gets from his own father is that his aunt was very sick and she died. The father who is the main character is the one that gives clear answers and explains that his wife committed suicide, something that children have accepted as reality and try to deal with it. So, which child – and, thus, which man – lives isolated in its own world?

The film approaches different aspects of values and behaviours that can occur. One of them is the above approach to reality and truth. Another is the issue of forgiveness. While children live “isolated” and exposed to harsh truths (for example, the intransigence of their grandfather who forbids their father to attend his wife’s funeral, the violation of the last wish of their mother not to be buried but to be cremated, past insults of their uncle against their mother), their morality is such that they manage to process the truth and to behave without feeling offended. So, while they know that their grandfather behaved in an awful way, they show to him love and understanding. Here too, the father does not follow the model to keep children away from harsh truths, and the results are more than surprising: the children do not react with hate but with love!

Such a new morality reaches even to the point of questioning the reasons recognized by the family to celebrate. Instead of adopting Christmas holidays like everyone else, they choose to celebrate and exchange gifts on the birthday of… Noam Chomsky on December 7th! Instead of celebrating for ghosts and nonexistent Santa Clauses, they celebrate the birthday of a living humanist. Indeed! The scene reminded me of a man of my familiar environment who saw no reason to celebrate the name day of a saint of a religion he didn’t believe in and suggested to celebrate the March 28th as a remembrance day of the proclamation of the Paris Commune of 1871! From now on, I have to buy him gifts on that day!

The vanity of man before death

The film gives a lot of slaps to what we consider moral, what is right, what makes sense in the context of the functioning of society. The highlight, however, of the criticism comes at the end of the film, where it is revealed that the mother, while living, had embraced Buddhism not as a religion but as an ideology – philosophy. As a last wish she asked in her will, instead of having a Christian funeral ceremony, to honor the cycle of life, and invited relatives and friends to bid farewell with cheerful songs, and to burn her body, throwing away the ashes to…? Hold on. She asked from her relatives and friends to gather in a very public place and with no ceremony empty her ashes in a toilet!

An external observer could say that this decision has to do with her psychiatric problems that also led her to commit suicide. But no! The film –  and also I – we take a position that this is not a craze, but one more slap in the face of our society. This time the film touches one of the greatest issues of a person’s life: the management of his/her death.

Her parents (who thought that their daughter went mad because of her husband), rather than respecting her last wish, organize a Christian ceremony, with the seriousness that usually surrounds such celebrations, with a priest worshipping a god to whom the dead did not believe, talking about her life without having known her, to an audience, who also didn’t know her, but they “honored” her with their presence at her funeral.

The family finally decides to dig up in her grave and follow her wish. At one night they get into the cemetery and find her grave. When one little daughter reads the gravestone of her mother that wrote the prayer «God rest her soul eternally», the other young daughter replied «let’s dig, otherwise her body will remain under this shit forever» .

So, what is the problem with funerals? They don’t honour the dead. There is no feast – or even a memorial event – by people close to the dead man/woman, but they become a social event for foreign people, for the neighbor, the colleague, the well-known which results in the close relatives and friends to be required to wear a ‘social mask’. And what about the burrying? Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas. The eternal presence that the burying is attempting to restore is the human effort to deny his/her death and his/her end.

So the dead mother comes and with insolent manner declares her end! She commits suicide and she is not meant to haunt the planet! She perceives life as part of nature run its course. She commits suicide without believing that there is a god waiting for her. All she asks is her favorite people to make a feast of love, since those who love want the happiness of others, not mourning and sadness. She asks to be burned and she thinks her ashes are simply ashes. Useless, not worth of any price and prominence. That’s why she asks that they are thrown in a toilet!

Allegory with realistic reactions

Personally, it does not bother me at all to watch a movie with an unrealistic scenario, if it is based on human reactions of characters that can be found in a particular situation. On the contrary, it bothers me when a film’s characters are in realistic situations, but they react irrationally.

To be more accurate, I approve the crying of the character who lost a close person from an attack by aliens/elves/ghosts etc, because – yes – I also would react the same way. But, I do not approve the character’s decision to go down to the basement, when he/she knows that there can be his/her worst nightmare (real or unreal), because – no – I would never do that!

To return to Captain Fantastic, even if it has an unrealistic scenario, the reactions of the characters are absolutely realistic. They are reactions that even include conflicts between the father and the children. Because, regardless of how a parent has brought up his children, it is a positive development for a child to want to leave, to have their own independent way, to “open their wings” and fly. This is something that the older son pursues, resulting in partial conflict with his father.

Also, there is the case where the parents, regardless of the upbringing they have given to their children, they can become receivers of the criticism, when things are going bad. It’s just like the coach in sports, who has built the team and in the first defeats they become the main target of critique…

The film shows that the relationship between father and children is not always easy. And when intensity peaks, then he takes full responsibility and agrees to leave the children with the grandfather and to withdraw himself from their lives.

Although I believe that the father takes this decision casually and hastily, as the children actually want to live with him, I believe that this action serves a purpose. To illustrate the grandeur of the values of the father, the superiority of his own morality, who even accepts the responsibility and takes the decision to live away from his children, just because he feels that he is an obstacle to their own development. Eventually, the children follow him in secret and all together they organize the operation “rescue mother”, unburying their mother and performing her last desire.

Captain Fantastic is a metaphor to highlight the weaknesses of the existing value system. Captain Fantastic may shock or offend many, but this is also the purpose: to question the behavior and ethics that we consider “obvious” and to propose a different morality – a morality that is intertwined with the human values, the respect for nature and the respect for life itself and death.

PS Excellent adaptation:



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