Captain Fantastic

A filmmaker friend of mine, Leonardo Ricagni, recently read my book, Unschooling in Paradise, and suggested enthusiastically that I simply MUST watch the 2016 film, Captain Fantastic.  I finally got around to doing that this weekend, and it was a really satisfying experience.

Power to the People! Stick it to the Man! These phrases resound all through the film, as do the themes of self-reliance, resiliency, and family bonds. Viggo Mortenson stars as Ben Cash, patriarch of an endearing brood of six children who are living way, way off the grid in rural Oregon (and part time in their traveling “unschool” bus). Though isolated, they are not cut off from knowledge of the world, but are highly educated through extensive reading and discussion of everything from classic literature to languages to quantum mechanics to political theory (in one scene, the youngest daughter Zaja puts her two older, schooled cousins to shame not just with her rote knowledge, but her deep understanding of the Bill of Rights). Not only steeped in academics, they are skilled survivalists (the film opens with a successful hand to hoof slaughter of a deer by the eldest, who is undergoing a rite of passage). The arts play an important role in their education, and their musical proficiencies range from informed references to Bach’s Goldberg Variations to inspired improvisation around a campfire on homemade instruments. What’s not to like?

The film raises, and thankfully does not explicitly answer, many important questions at the heart of unschooling.  How do we raise children to think critically about the social-political-economic system we exist in? Are we human beings like fish who have no conception that they are swimming in water, who must get completely outside our culture in order to understand its impact on us? This family is clearly being raised to be staunchly anti-capitalist, and the oldest son has obviously read not only Marx, but Mao and Trotsky as well; instead of celebrating a commercialized Christmas, the family receives presents on Noam Chomsky’s birthday!  At times, these perspectives border unpleasantly on indoctrination, as the children demonstrate their harsh judgments of “outsiders,” with scathing critiques of body types, levels of fitness, intellectual vacuity, or dogmatic religious views.

The question of how much adults should impose their views on children are not only at the heart of unschooling – they are very much part of the history of educational thought, captured perhaps most cogently in the historical arguments between the social reform ideas of George Counts and the more child-centered ideas of John Dewey. Both believed in the power of education to create a better future, but while Counts tended towards imposing political ideas, Dewey maintained a faith in free inquiry and teaching students to think for themselves.

While most contemporary educators surely believe that they are free from the propensity to indoctrinate children, and in fact, some work diligently to counteract the dominant messages of the society, some people argue that everything from the Common Core to math story problems about Nike shoes constitute a subtle form of indoctrination to the consumer culture we live in (our water!) Captain Fantastic stereotypes the leftist propaganda offered by Ben, but leaves the question of conventional propagandizing more open to our interpretation, as in how we respond to the intellectually vegetative, video-game obsessed cousins (the Know-Nothings about the Bill of Rights) who are meant to represent both mainstream “culture” and conventional educational outcomes.

Most unschoolers that I know are committed to trusting the “inner compass” of their kids in terms of building on their interests and facilitating their self-directed growth. In Captain Fantastic, however, the father takes a much more directive role. Under Ben’s command, the family’s physical education is not left to chance; the kids start each day with boot camp, where they run, jump, do push-ups, and climb steep rock cliffs (sometimes with frightening outcomes). Even more illustrative of this tension, we see the kids responding to their father’s prompts with platitudes and clichés that suggest intense intellectual programming, highlighting the contradiction between Ben’s stated interest in raising freethinkers and his authoritarian pedagogy!

The question of socialization occupies a central place in the film.  Brilliant as the children are, and they are extremely, perhaps even precociously “well-educated,” their inability to function well in the mainstream world is captured in some heart-rending scenes (one in particular that involves another rite of passage for the eldest son, a first romantic kiss, followed immediately by a marriage proposal to a young woman he just met at a trailer park). This theme mostly feeds stereotypes about home and un-schoolers. While there are likely some families whose philosophies are as extreme as those in Captain Fantastic, most that I have met are concerned with positive socialization, and take great steps to ensure that their kids can function in society. I deal with this issue pretty extensively in my chapter titled “Becoming Human” in Unschooling in Paradise. The film does highlight a moral dilemma for many parents: to what extent should they acquiesce to forms of socialization designed for adaptation to a culture they might see as hopelessly (choose any of the following): unjust, corrupt, competitive, materialistic, hedonistic, mean-spirited, anti-intellectual, bullying, militaristic, bureaucratic, wasteful, unequal, etc.? And beyond this, when the children themselves opt for the mainstream experience (as do two of the Cash kids), what right do parents have to dissuade them? The film gets into some very complex questions here that don’t lend themselves to easy answers.

The Cash family presents us with an extreme version of “unhooking” from the system.  I found much to resonate with, much to love, and much to question.  It is wonderfully cast – the children in the ensemble are stellar actors, and very believable. No character is one-dimensional – they all have quirks and flaws, and even Ben, in his determined self-righteousness, questions whether he is doing right by his family with their withdrawal from society. I love the ways in which the remarkable intellectual potential of young people is highlighted and I love the questions the film raises about the ethics and dilemmas of trying to live a life outside of the system, and by implication, the relative effectiveness of changing the system from within or without. I appreciate that ardent critiques of Captain Fantastic come from both left and right ends of the political spectrum and that neither pole was satisfied with the somewhat compromised outcome of the film (no spoilers here).  No matter where you stand on the issues of public schools, home schooling, or unschooling, you will probably find some rich veins of thought to mine in the film.