Review: Captain Fantastic

My sister and I decided to watch Captain Fantastic one hung-over morning whilst we were both still intoxicated and incapable of much else. Two hours later, we were sat in shock, having cried buckets, we were emotionally drained but realised that we’d just witnessed something beautiful.


Captain Fantastic revolves around the Cash family, a spectacularly unique family of seven led by father Ben, unique because of their decision to live completely cut off from society in the Washington state wilderness. From the start Leslie Cash (the mother) is absent and we learn quickly that she committed suicide whilst in hospital, being treated for mental illness. Broken-hearted, the family are further devastated when Jack, Leslie’s father, forbids Ben from attending her funeral. Jack announces that Leslie will have a Christian burial, in direct opposition to her wishes to be cremated in the Buddhist tradition and subsequently have her ashes flushed down the toilet. In a defiant twist, the family decide to venture into civilisation regardless and commence mission ‘Save Mommy’.


What is really special about this film is the unapologetic disregard for audience expectation and desire. This is expressed through the Cash family themselves, in the very lifestyle they choose to lead and the who-cares attitude they adopt towards social norms. For example, when his young nephew asks how Leslie died, Ben reveals that she committed suicide after suffering for years from bipolar disorder. This extreme candidness with a child is shocking yet also incredibly touching because of the respect it demonstrates for the truth, and a child’s right to it. A far more light-hearted example of this graphic honesty is when Nai, Ben’s youngest son – who is about 7 years old – asks him what sexual intercourse is. He proceeds, without hesitation, to give him a detailed explanation, much to Nai’s obvious disgust.


The film’s tenet of disregarding accepted norms is introduced from the very first scene, where we are accosted with the image of a deer being slaughtered by the whole family, as part of the eldest son’s coming of age ritual. Although far from ideal for the squeamish viewer, it is important to persevere as this is just the film forcing the viewer into the same back to nature, self-sufficient world that the Cash family inhabit. Equally importantly is that this unashamed stance lends the film its raw quality, leaving the viewer with the realisation that they have just watched something incredibly honest.


This stance does not always work in the film’s favour however. At times the family’s negative attitude towards society, due to their high minded ideals, can come across as arrogance. The children are all intellectually advanced for their age because of the strenuous and crammed education programme Ben organizes for them. As a result, even the youngest children are often quoting loaded political concepts, obscure intellectuals and elements of high culture. Unsurprisingly, this can feel pretentious and there is a sense the whole family possess a strong superiority complex to the outside world.


Even the Land of the Free is not spared the family’s brutal critique. In fact, it is American society, rather than Western society in general, that bears the brunt of their insults. During their first encounter with other people in Washington, the children look around in disgust and question why everyone around them is ‘so fat’. Among the many other objects of the family’s revulsion are Coca-Cola, Christianity, microwaves, sleeping indoors, shop bought food and the American education system. However, by the end of the film there is compensation for their complete distaste for the outside world.


One particularly important aspect of the plot is the nature of Leslie Cash’s death and the mental illness she lived with. The film raises awareness of bipolar disorder and the struggles sufferers face. The film, in a painful but truthful way, attempts and succeeds to simultaneously explain a mother’s boundless love for her children against the inner turmoil she experienced that tragically forced her to leave them.


In line with the extremes of Leslie’s illness, the emotion in this film plays out across a huge spectrum. One moment at the dinner table Zaja asks how her aunt ‘killed’ the shop bought chicken on the table. Next moment the discussion turns to the loss of the children’s mother. As the film goes on, the viewer begins to accept these extremes as an essential feature of the film. Captain Fantastic is absolutely littered with heart-breaking, intense scenes, yet equally with joyful, uplifting ones.


One of the most touching scenes in the film is when the family finally manage to cremate Leslie along with her wishes. Stood on a cliff overlooking the sea, dressed in rainbow colours, the family surround Leslie’s funeral pyre. Whilst potentially a highly distressing scene, the family’s serenity creates a peaceful atmosphere that the viewer absorbs. Before lighting the pyre, Ben leans down to say a few words to his wife:


“My face is mine. My hands are mine. My mouth is mine. But I am not. I am yours.”


While Leslie’s body burns the family begin to sing ‘Sweet Child of Mine’, dancing to the music in fitting tribute.


Megan Beckett


Captain Fantastic is out now on DVD, and available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.





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