I saw Captain Fantastic the night after Toni Erdmann at the Sydney Film Festival this year. Both films have been hyped in different ways and yet while they both deal with a similar subject matter – the role and place of fatherhood in the contemporary world – they couldn’t go about it more differently. Where Toni Erdmann implodes fatherhood from within in order to bring about an utterly exquisite and original portrait of fatherly wisdom, Captain Fantastic is utterly sentimental and self-serious in its commitment to a certain ideal of middle-class white fatherhood, offering the most preposterously conservative and conventional tenets as something of an indie or “minor” lifestyle choice. All of it revolves around Ben Cash, played by Viggo Mortensen, who has chosen to raise his large, sprawling family in rural Colorado, where he teaches them survival skills while home schooling them at the same time. Although he presumably teaches them every subject his particular focus is upon building social and political consciousness and enacting it through encounters with the natural world, in what often feels like a late and denuded transcendentalist gesture that has been transplanted from the Northeast to the Rockies – and lost a great deal in the translation. Although this at first appears to be a single-parent family, it gradually emerges that Ben’s wife, Leslie, has been hospitalised in New Mexico for severe depression, where she is being attended by her parents, and when news of her suicide reaches the Cash clan in the opening minutes, Ben decides that he is going to drive the family south to attend the funeral, even if – as he claims – a funeral is the last thing Leslie ever wanted.
Of course, that all begs the question as to why Ben and his family aren’t at his wife’s bedside in the first place, but those questions take a little while to come to the fore, with the first part of the film content to sketch out the Cash family lifestyle against the backdrop of the Rockies. While these scenes sometimes achieve the kinds of slightly ominous, pre-apocalyptic regionalism to be found in David Gordon Green, for the most part they’re quite difficult to take seriously, if only because the Cashes seem to have every possible amenity at their disposal. In fact, the only thing that really differentiates them from your average white middle-class family is the fact that they prepare their own food, and these opening scenes are accordingly suffused with montage sequences depicting hunting, preparing and cooking meat, in what gradually comes to feel more like an advertisement for the Slow Food Movement than anything else. For all that the Cashes are supposedly doing it rough, this tribal family feels inextricably urban, just as the wilderness feels more and more like the backyard every Brooklyn family secretly wants. By the time they set off for New Mexico, they might as well be in Bushwick, and while Matt Ross does seem to be going for a deliberately quaint feel at times, there is something quite old-fashioned and dated about the particular quaintness on display here, with the freak folk vibe slotting it all in quite neatly between Animal Collective’s Campfire Songs and the first Fleet Foxes album, residues of an indie 00s sincerity scene that feels utterly exhausted by this point in time.
Having committed to New Mexico the Cashes start to morph from demented descendants of The Waltons to demented descendants of The Partridge Family, as Ben rigs up the family bus and heads south, passing away the time by testing his kids on how much they’ve benefited from his home schooling, as well as continuing their lessons on the road. As a teacher myself, I was surprised at the way in which the film positioned this as one of Ben’s most eccentric activities, since his actual teaching strategies are laughably conservative, conventional and didactic by contemporary standards, relying largely on a teacher-centered model of charismatic instruction that more or less subsists on being “knowing” about “American culture,” which is perhaps why this also felt like the quintessential “film festival” film, tailored for precisely the performative and conspicuous laughter that typifies a certain strand of festival experience. What’s more, Ben’s actual curriculum is unimaginably staid, or perhaps just seems staid because it is presented as radical, as if a father force feeding his children Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov and Guns, Germs and Steel were in any sense a break with traditional pedagogy. As much as he might continually insist upon himself as some kind of outlier, his methods conform fairly narrowly to those of elite American educational institutions tailored for precisely the upwardly mobile middle class aspiration he apparently disavows, and so it is no real surprise – although the film presents it as something of a twist – when his son turns out to have got a place at virtually every university of note on the East Coast, including every Ivy League institution, since this is the trajectory that has been inherent in Ben’s teaching philosophy all along. Nor is it a surprise when one of the children gets the family out of a sticky situation by claiming that Ben is writing an academic title on child-rearing – whether or not it is true, Ben raises his kids like a scholar-practicioner, a self-styled mastermind of some grand experiment that makes him feel utterly implicated in the very academic and educational institutions that he purports to spurn.
Of course, it’s impossible for this kind of film not to engage in some critique of its main character, especially as Ben becomes ever more repulsive as the film continues. For one thing, it emerges that he made a conscious decision not to move his children down to New Mexico for his wife’s hospitalisation despite the pleas and requests of his parents-in-law, on the grounds that it would disrupt the plans for parenthood that he and his wife had – supposedly – formulated in tandem. For another thing, he has the gall to arrive at the house of his brother and sister in law – who actually cared for his wife during her last days – and immediately reproach them for not being “real” enough about suicide with their own kids. It’s no surprise, then, when he arrives halfway through the funeral like some kind of rock star – by this stage the convoy shots are preposterously pretentious, like the front cover of the first MGMT album spun out to an entire montage sequence – only to bang on to the congregation about how nobody “got” Leslie, despite the fact that most of them presumably played some actual part in the last stages of her illness. Apart from being just about the most uninspired ripoff of the end of Little Miss Sunshine – and every other spinoff of Little Miss Sunshine – you could imagine, it’s the kind of scene that makes you wonder whether Ben might have – or must have – contributed in some small way to his wife’s depression in the first place. When it finally emerges that Leslie “voluntarily” gave up on a promising medical career to help his fulfil his vision of fatherhood, all the pieces feel in place, and it’s only a matter of time before he places his children in real physical danger, with one of his daughters abruptly hospitalised in turn after falling prey to one of his crazy hijinks.
With that kind of track record, you’d think that the critique of Ben would almost write itself, so it takes an enormous act of will on the part of the film to turn this repulsive self-indulgence into yet another facet of his fatherly profundity. For while Ben and the film criticise his behaviour as much as they need to in order to avoid coming off as completely insane, that self-criticism is collapsed into a wider and more self-pitying sense of pathos that sees Ben taking off from the family and dumping his kids with his in-laws rather than being prepared to sacrifice one ounce of his vision. As the film presents it, this is a somewhat moving and stirring moment – not necessarily respectable, but not quite unrespectable either – and yet to me there was something utterly perverse about this vision of a man whose commitment to his own particular philosophy of fatherhood was so cloying and precious that he was prepared to sacrifice even his own children rather than compromise it in any way. As much as his departure might initially play as an admission of wrong, then, it is really just the opposite – and the very opposite of the way in which Winifried over-identifies with his shortcomings so brilliantly in Toni Erdmann – and sure enough it’s the children who have to pursue and assuage him, much as you might imagine his wife did before she succumbed to depression, in one of the whiniest and most petulant visions of white middle-class fatherhood I have ever seen committed to the big screen, a nightmarish inversion of the provisional nuclear family formulated so beautifully by The Squid and the Whale at the other end of this indie moment.
In short, it’s the kind of film where nobody ever really calls out the main character on his pretension – not really – with most characters blasting him with exactly the broad-stroke character assassinations that allows him to play the victim and bring out all his own cliches in return. There’s not a great deal of tension in a film where everyone – or all the people who count – think the main character is awesome, and while Ross may try to compensate for that with some moments of romantic and sexual tension, it is here that the true ugliness of the film really comes into focus. For as much as Ben might berate and patronise his in-laws and extended family as mere suburbanites, his own sexual politics are utterly regressive and reactionary. On the one hand, he’s more than happy to blithely and blankly explain rape to his youngest daughter as if it’s just an everyday event – for some reason this got laughs from the audience – yet on the other hand he manages to dredge up the most saccharine and soulful warmth when giving his son any advice about women, all of which culminates with his final piece of wisdom – and his final utterance in the film – which runs to the effect that his son should always be gentle during sexual experience with a woman, even if he doesn’t like her or doesn’t enjoy it. Apart from the sententious pomposity within which this final gem of wisdom is phrased, the fact that its central insight – don’t assault women – has to be offered as wisdom at all says more about the film than any other single moment, with the possible exception of Ben’s prescription of Lolita as a set text for his second youngest daughter. That’s the last note – telling his son not to assault or aggravate women as if it’s some kind of life-changing lesson – and while I’ve always loved Matt Ross as an actor, especially in Big Love and Silicon Valley, I found it hard to follow his vision here except as a harbinger of better things to come, since there is no question that this is a professional, atmospheric and immersive film, just as there is no question that it’s an impressive writer-director debut in terms of craft, as evinced in its reception at Sundance and Cannes. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a film I’ve seen in recent times that dissociates political radicalism and cultural conservatism so categorically, nor a film in which the posture of socialist bros is dissembled so thoroughly and damningly, albeit inadvertently, which perhaps makes it all the most disturbing as an experience, even if it remains strangely fascinating as a phenomenon.