Captain Fantastic movie full length review - Family escapes from reality but learns to prepare for it
Nothing seems to be happening in the last scene of Captain Fantastic. Ben and his last five kids seem to be sitting around the breakfast table. Nobody says, nobody does, very much.
This is a very quiet conclusion to a film in which we watched the family's high-stress discussions, high-risk training sessions, emotional eruptions over the mother's death, their staged supermarket theft, Ben's disputes with his sister-in-law and father-in-law and his public explosion at his wife's funeral, one daughter's nearly fatal attempt to retrieve a brother, the grandfather's "adopting" of the kids, their escape to dig up their mother's corpse and give her the cremation she wanted, including her ashes being flushed down the toilet, and of course Ben shaving off his hippie wild man beard. After all that drama the last scene is a welcome but surprisingly quiet end.
But look at all that's happening there. Reunited, the family is continuing the parents' experiment to live in the wilds, in isolation, to ensure the children's superior education and self- reliance. In each lesson they advance from rote learning into independent analysis and judgment, sin the daughter's movement from plot to theme in Lolita. The kids have opted to stay with their father instead of enjoying life on their wealthy grandfather's estate.
There are only five kids there now, the oldest having with Ben's agreement left for the outside world. Instead of going to one of the five top level universities (Harvard, etc.) who have accepted him, he has opted to go out on his own, having randomly chosen Namibia. He's leaving the family's retreat but for an open-ended adventure. He may or may not go to college, but for now he's content to test his forest education lessons on his own in the outside, i.e., real, world.
Ben has accepted his kids' need to leave the nest. The other kids have the oldest's example for themselves to follow when their time comes. If the film begins with one rite of passage, the killing of an animal, it ends with another: the journey. The boy loses his hair to make the trek, as in Ben's shaving casting off the primitive face-paint and wildness that marked the opening rite. Both men have internalized the strength they had worn as a front.
Ben's next oldest son is serving him breakfast. This is the kid who most openly revolted against Ben, blaming his insensitivity and stubbornness for their mother's death and running away to live with their grandfather. Having seen Ben accept responsibility and complete "the mission" of their mothers' cremation request, the boy embraces his father again, forgives him his extremism and brings their relationship a new warmth. There is a new mutual respect.
Ben says they have fifteen minutes before the school bus comes. This is radical. However excellent the kids' home education has been, Ben has acknowledged their need to experience the outside world, to go to a real school and learn how to deal with other children and their culture. From Adidas to sex, in the trailer camp flirtation scene and the scenes with the sister- in-law's two brats, we've sampled the estrangement these isolated children have to learn to overcome. Book larnin' ain't enough.
But where's the usual rush for the school bus? Instead the kids are sitting calmly reading and writing. This catches the family's real virtue ? discipline. The family may have compromised their initial objective of living isolated from the outside world, but they are bringing into their new life their old rigour, dedication and self-control.
And that's the film's central value. While we watch Ben's various lessons for his children we see his most valuable discovery ? the dangers of extremism. He learns that his hippie idealism can be as dangerous, destructive and delimiting as his father-in-law's capitalism. His wife was driven to escape both. She helped the oldest apply for university as his way out. Suicide was hers.
Ben's adult treatment of his children's questions are clearly more enabling and constructive than the shelter his sister-in-law purports to give hers. Their shelter shades into ignorance on the Bill of Rights quiz. Their callousness is exposed when their computer games shock Ben's children and when the boys give the departing family the raised third finger. Ben's kids are getting the better education. But at the same time, their isolation will only impede and endanger them when they venture ? as they must ? into the outside world.
The growth implicit in Ben's change and in that last scene brings a new force to their favourite quote from Noam Chomsky, whom they celebrate instead of the fictional elf of Christmas: "If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world."
Of course, Chomsky himself is an extremist, whose idealism ? like the early Ben's ? ignores the exigencies and compromises necessary to survive in government, politics and business. This passage argues against extremism especially in any removal from the world. It's more mature and constructive than the kids' favourite exchange:
Nai: Power to the people!
Bo: Stick it to the man! Slogans do not a fruitful approach to life make. The last scene shows Ben as well as his children accepting the need to realize their values in the real world rather than in retreat from it.