Sunday, May 14, 2017

Swiss Family Roadtrip: Captain Fantastic

When we were driving through rural California back in 2015 on the way to Yosemite, we were struck by how easy it would be to just disappear in the vastness of America.

Dropping out in Britain is compromised (with the possible exception of northern Scotland) by population density -  the counterculture is social by necessity as much as by inclination. In the US, there's little to prevent you going full Walden, if that's what you want. 

And in last year's film Captain Fantastic, that's exactly what Ben and Leslie Cash thought they wanted.

NB mild spoilers and mention of mental illness and suicide follow.

Turning their back on the dominant culture, they raise their six children in deep seclusion in the forested fastness of Washington state. Their aim: to raise philosophers and athletes in the style of the Ancient Greeks, able to cite the Bill of Rights as readily as they can run miles through the forest. 

Writer/director Matt Ross manages the feat of taking this project as seriously as they do themselves, while also acknowledging the comedy inherent in a family who give their children one-of-a-kind new age names (Vespyr, Rellian, Bodevan) and celebrate Noam Chomsky Day in lieu of Christmas.

Captain Fantastic is a film about the collapse of this rural utopian dream through the mental illness and death of mother Leslie and the family's resulting, reluctant but pragmatic compromise with American society. Rugged, brooding, heartfelt - though not without lightness of touch - it's a very Viggo Mortensen kind of film.

And he excels himself in the lead role of grieving patriarch Ben Cash, driving down to New Mexico with clan in tow to disrupt Leslie's (profoundly, inappropriately traditional) funeral. A kind of Swiss Family Roadtrip, if you like. The kids are great too, played by the juvenile cast with just the right mix of precocity, naivete and presumption you'd expect of children raised by latter-day Rousseaus.

The film walks a nice line between critiquing the idea that one can change the world simply by retreating and raising the next generation apart from it, while also showing up the limits and ignorance of modern techno-culture. It doesn't trade on broad strokes or easy answers though; it's a small film about parents with big ideas and is all the better for it.

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