“Today, the boy is dead. And in his place is a man,” Viggo Mortenson’s character in Captain Fantastic says somberly, before offering his son a bite of deer’s heart, the very deer his son has just slain. The scene could come straight from a Viking movie set in the year 1000 AD, but it is actually 2016, a few miles away from outlet malls, McDonalds, and Holiday Inns. The five other children watching the scene break into cheers, a tribe of redheads in Mortenson’s character, Ben’s, care. It’s not a summer camp, it’s for life, as Ben and his absent wife have raised the children off the grid, homeschooling them and teaching them to live off the wild land around them. Their methods are unconventional, they teach the children both from books and from observation, always painfully honest with them. It is a public educator’s worst case scenario.
When the mother commits suicide, Ben and the six children travel back to civilization for her funeral, much to the dismay of the children’s grandparents, who are outraged that their grandchildren and their daughter have all been taken away from them. Thus begins the conundrum. Is Ben doing his children a service by educating them himself? They are all intelligent children, able to not only recite facts but apply them to their lives. A poignant scene occurs when Ben asks the children’s cousins, both in high school, to tell him about the Bill of Rights and receives only halfhearted mumbling in response. However, eight-year-old Zaja eagerly tells her father about the same document, not only reciting it from memory but applying it to other court cases throughout the years.
Even though they are masters of analysis and memorization, the children are social anomalies, mistaking Nike shoes for the Greek goddess of victory, and celebrating reformer Noam Chomsky’s birthday rather than Christmas. The question then is, what should one’s priorities be? Is it more important that children grow up educated regarding philosophy, history, and literature, or is it more important that they blend in with their peers, able to discuss video games and the latest music?
As someone who grew up homeschooled, I have become accustomed to negative portrayals of homeschooling throughout media. Homeschoolers are awkward, they don’t know how to socialize, or as one comedian put it, “They’re like if an alien took over a regular kid’s body.”
Television shows such as 19 Kids and Counting reinforce the stereotype that homeschoolers wear long denim jumpers and judge anyone who dares to send their children outside the house for education. Movies like Mean Girls portra: homeschoolers as rednecks wielding shotguns, proclaiming, “And on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle, so man could fight the dinosaurs. And the homosexuals.”
Because of these preexisting stereotypes, I found Captain Fantastic to be a refreshing change. The children subvert the expectations of homeschoolers, including the claim that parents don’t have the qualifications to teach their children. Even in the middle of Montana without the Internet or cell phones, Ben teaches his children analytical skills, banning the word “interesting” in an attempt to make them think beyond shallow assumptions. He makes them give presentations on philosophical theories and encourages them to share their knowledge, with the result that the six-year-old and the eighteen-year-old are able to have a conversation on Marxist theory or the fall of the Soviet Union. So what does it matter that they haven’t played any video games?
I recognized Ben’s manner of teaching immediately, as the Socratic discussion vital to a classical education. In this method, teaching is shaped by conversation, the asking of questions by the instructor and the responses by the student. On a particular car ride, the oldest daughter is reading Lolita, and Ben not only questions her feelings regarding the book, but the source of those feelings as seen in the text. He wants his children to understand the “why” behind their feelings, not only in an academic setting, but in the greater scope of life. The validity of this method of education in the film was uplifting to me, as I was also educated by this form. I appreciated the depiction of homeschoolers as intelligent, curious, and capable.
Unfortunately, even though I viewed the film as being positive towards a homeschooled education, the only two dark spots in the film for me regarded this topic. When pulled over by a police officer, the family embraces the stereotype of homeschooling by quoting Bible verses to the officer and singing the hymn “Glorious Day” until he becomes so uncomfortable he departs. The scene smacks with a twinge of mocking fundamentalist Christian homeschoolers, which is unnecessary. The motivation may have been to show that homeschoolers are not all fundamentalists, but it does so with a slap in the face to those who do fit that description. It’s a funny scene, but impossible to laugh at without a pang of guilt. Later, Ben chides one of his children not to to make fun of people, only to receive the response, “Except Christians!” The humor at the expense of Christianity is unnecessary.
The other spot that left me with a bad taste in my mouth was the ending, in which Ben and his children move to a farm closer to civilization, and the five youngest begin attending public school. This is seen as a compromise between the extreme off-the-grid lifestyle, and suburbia, but I found it unsatisfying. Ben’s decision to let the government control his children’s education is out of character. If eight-year-old Zaja already knows the entire Constitution and Marxist theory, how will she feel in a classroom learning that George Washington was the first present with 20 other third-graders? Will Rellian, beginning high school, be content with reviewing basic algebra when he has already learned the concepts of calculus? The ending serves to make Ben’s entire experience homeschooling his children feel like a waste of time, and a disservice to anyone in favor of a homeschooled education. Would it not be enough to sign them up for soccer and violin lessons for contact with the outside world instead?
Captain Fantastic is nothing if not heartwarming, as the family grows closer in their bonds for one another after a tragedy. However, there is ambiguity regarding the portrayal of homeschooling, and it can be seen as positive or negative depending on the viewer’s experiences with homeschooled children. The children attending public school can be seen as a relief, as they will finally achieve normalcy, or a disappointment that they will become so-called ‘normal,’ like their ignorant public-schooled cousins. One thing is certain, however. Ben does what he thinks is best for his children, and he wants them to be happy. Maybe that is all that matters.
Rachel Davis is a freelance journalist who has previously written feature articles for the Campbell University website.