Captain Fantastic: white privilege or revealing drama?

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The recent US film release Captain Fantastic is an ‘off-grid family drama’ set in a remote Pacific Northwest forest. In a heated discussion of tropes around diversity, disability and the family, Deborah Williams and Alison Wilde go head to head in a conversation that points to the poignancy as well as the flaws within Matt Ross’s film – prompted by an initial discussion between the two writers about the exclusion of black people, voices, opinions and aesthetics from mainstream arts culture.

Photo of Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash dressed in red with his children lined up beside him

Viggo Mortensen and his children in Captain Fantastic. Photograph: Regan MacStravic/ Supplied

Alison: Our argument began because I was finding it hard to get beyond my appreciation for the film, and my new found love for Viggo Mortensten (who plays dad, Ben Cash), but one thing I’d been able to work out from the start was that this narrative was overwhelmingly white and middle-class. If I’m honest – my first reaction on seeing it was to start defending myself to my youngest child as to the many reasons I couldn’t provide all my children with a similar upbringing – this was, after all my white, aspiring middle-class phantasy.

Debs: When this film started I wanted to be sick. It was all the usual cultural appropriation shit I had fought against for years right in my face, and I had paid for the privilege of it. I was ready for Alison big time. But she was right (damn you). Once you get over the survival shit and hunting crap there is a gem of a film that opens up a new world of story in 21st century cinema.

The basic premise is: a family live off the grid, there is a dad and six children, and the mother is in a psychiatric hospital. They make and sell things, make decisions reflecting wider responsibilities, having lifestyles congruent with post-capitalism in action. But ‘real world’ moments seep in. The eldest son does not know how to communicate with girls who flirt with him, the dad goes to town to use a phone. When the news comes that their mother, his wife has killed herself is when Ben Cash comes into his own. We see his pain, his children’s pain and a fragmentation of utopia that held few apparent previous flaws.

At this point it turns into a road trip wayward and random, but a road trip none the less. STEVE is the bus that takes them from the idyllic wilderness to the opulence of New Mexico. The usual comedy stuff is there, from stealing food to celebrating Noam Chomsky day, to broken and dysfunctional families, to the obligatory full frontal nude scene in the ‘white trash’ trailer park.  It’s during these moments that for me the film came into its own.

The moment around the suburban dinner table when they fall out when asked how their aunt died. Ben’s sister and her husband try to tell their two children that she got ill, people get ill and sometimes they die. Ben is insistent on truth, at any cost. So tells them in no uncertain terms that she was bipolar and killed herself.

This creates a scene reminiscent of the last Christmas I spent with my own family that was both hysterical and heart-breaking. This is when I realised it was a film about the effect disability and impairment and medical conditions have on ones nearest and dearest. It was a film about pain and loss.

Alison: Yes, this scene in particular convinced me of the film in terms of white privilege – and also, tropes of mental health. Several reviews described Ben Cash as a ‘Manson-like’ figure, and his survivalist strategies, as a parent looking both ‘impressive’ and ‘daunting’, even ‘worrying’; but I believe every parent has to choose what they can offer, and these are very hard choices to make, discounting other possibilities.

The way Ben talks about mental health and illness is ground-breaking. There are a number of scenes where we see him deconstruct what passes for (U.S. white-suburban) normality, and where he shows what harm it does, but it is this scene in particular where he challenges the way his brother-in-law glosses over the truth of Leslie’s suicide and her bipolarity in a breathtakingly deceitful and damaging manner.

The exchange begins over dinner with a question from one of Ben’s children about how they killed the chicken. Ben’s sister struggles to explain that it was ‘pre-killed’ especially stumbling over the words ‘bought’ and ‘dead’. Both sister and brother-in-law then attempt to stop Ben telling their own children the truth about their aunt’s life – serving to reveal much about everyday attitudes: how we lie about death, cover and normalise pain and distress and stigmatise mental illness, and what harm this does in perpetuating stereotypes which set people apart.

Ben’s straightforward explanation of the suicide led the children to understand immediately. However their own father’s attempt to obfuscate left them in doubt. His bland reassurances are exactly the type of fobbing off that frightens children, creating ‘monsters in the wardrobe’ which jump out in the middle of the night for years to come, usually in the form of ‘mad men and women’, that continue to dominate in our cultural imaginaries of mental illness/ madness.

Debs: Well you said that better than I did, and it says all that needs saying, for now. The privilege screaming out felt like a thump in the stomach to me. It was clear that the utopia they lived and dreamed of was only allowed if you were white, middle class, American, expected to succeed and willing to fall back into line when it all went tits up.

I came out wondering what it would have been like for someone without any of these things, what would be the perception, would they have been able to trick a whole supermarket into helping them steal food to eat or would they just have been shot or even worse allowed to die in the aisle?  Would any black family sleep outdoors under the stars, on the floor, in sleeping bags? Where are all the rich black families when you need them?

photo of the six Cash children, lined up in a row outside in a wood

The six Cash children. Photograph: Regan MacStravic/ Supplied

Alison: This was exactly my feeling, especially when we began to move towards the denouement, and of course we were always aware that there was a rich white family in the background to pick up the tab, even if the philosophical pieces of their lives lay in ruins. Although I loved this film, I am not without ambivalence.

Given what I said about white middle-class values I admit that my heart sinks to think of the ambivalence I feel at the yurt I saw (which I know one of my closest friends covets) and the resources they are able to pool to achieve their goal of educating their children to become ‘Philosopher Kings’.

However, and this is where reflection on my own privilege is massively important, talking to you Debs help me realise where more of the gaps are in a story about a white middle-class family. I already get that this story would have worked out very differently if the grandfather was not very rich; indeed the story may not have been possible…

Debs: My thoughts on privilege were of course useless thoughts, as this is the beauty of the film. It is diversity in all its glory. It is what I have been trying to get people to see when they think about these things. It is not a black and white issue. It’s grey.

This film worked because it was incredibly self-aware and did not apologise for that. It was from a well-worn perspective – the family – but with a whole different sense of responsibility. The undertones of fixing were counteracted with the overtones of rebellion. When it slipped into the bad old ways you could really tell, in particular with the church scenes and the easy compliance from Ben when it came to his wife’s family, and how simple it was for the children to ‘bring him back’ was all a little twee. But these moments were few and far between.

I guess I would say that if you are going to do cultural appropriation and tell a story everyone knows, Captain Fantastic is the way to do it. My wonder to you Alison, as you sit wringing your hands and wandering around in your sackcloth and ashes is how you would have responded, if it had come from a different perspective all together, in terms of race and/or ethnicity. What we need to get past is ‘guilting’ people into thinking that their lives are not worth living unless they are lived to the expectation of someone else.

Alison: Ha. I don’t wring my hands all the time. I snarl too, as you know only too well. I also disagree. Discourses of race operate on many levels as you are more than aware!  Some of my issues here are with Ben’s attempts to make his children Philosopher Kings (note, not Queens [insert your preferred royal title]. Although I loved some of this stuff (on Chomsky for example), where was Fanon? hooks? West? Biko? This would have been a really easy thing to do.

Debs: Yes, but come on, if all of the usual white privilege expectation of black norms had been included would it be as good, or would it just be ‘worthy’? Would it be ‘authentic’ or would it be forced. Would you go and see it a second time for pleasure or out of a sense of duty?

This diversity lark has a tendency to get in the way of true work, craft and artistry. For me I want to examine much more the ideas of medical conditions, impairments and disability as witnessed in that dinner table scene. For me that is the root of this film.

The reason to come back to it several times, to bring more people to it, use it as an example in all of my training and teaching. Get the discourse going around that and we will be hitting the big time. The rest is for the wannabees, the ambulance chasers, that hang around waiting for people to get worried and scared; then they pounce in with low hanging fruit that goes rotten before you have even got it home.

Alison: I disagree somewhat. We’re glancing back at parenting here a little… as a radical pedagogue, Ben Cash should have made sure that Black philosophers should always be on the shelf, and on the children’s tongues, as it were. In turn, that would have lent the film MORE not less authenticity?

Debs: Well I disagree with that last point, but that is where you have one up on me. I don’t do parenting, and have no real idea what goes on behind the curtains in white suburbia. All I know is that as a film it was shot wonderfully, performances were all outstanding – even the stock ones, and the script made me ‘well jel’. But most of all the sound gave it depth of character that you do not often see in these places. If I could afford to go and see it again, I would.

Alison: Point taken…there is really not much more I can say. As always, it is a privilege to talk to you Debs.

Debs: Of course it is.