I went to a screening of “Captain Fantastic” the day after I learned that a friend’s 14-year-old met her boyfriend on Tinder. Living off the grid sounded pretty appealing.
The movie follows Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children, who live on a self-made compound in the Pacific Northwest. (Their mother is hospitalized, so she’s not with them.) They forage for all their food, entertain themselves with handmade instruments around their yurt and celebrate Noam Chomsky Day. No one is on Tinder.
The real world comes crashing in, as it does, and the loose ends in Cash’s plan to raise self-sufficient, deer heart-eating Chomsky acolytes begin to unravel.
Still, you can see the appeal, especially after the weeks we’ve just had. It’s tempting to gather your loved ones and head for the hills, where police brutality and vengeful snipers are far-off headlines (not that you’d see headlines) and you don’t know that #WhiteInventions is trending on Twitter. (Maybe an all-time low for Twitter, and that’s saying a lot.)
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I spoke with director Matt Ross shortly after I saw the screening, and he says he intended to tell a story less about living off the land and more about how fully to give yourself over to parenting.
“My daughter is 13 and my son is 9, and I wrote this a couple years ago,” Ross told me. “You have a central idea, and as it rolls down the hill it gathers things. But the central concern is parenthood and that question of what kind of parent are you going to be and what kind of person are you going to be.”
I find myself asking those very questions — we all should be — in the wake of the recent killings. My hope is that we move in the opposite direction of Cash — that we refuse to isolate ourselves, that we turn toward each other and learn more about life in someone else’s shoes.
My hope, in other words, is that we all take on society’s most entrenched problems as our own. Because they are.
But it’s interesting, in “Captain Fantastic,” to watch a father try to shield his kids from the culture he fears will corrupt them — the crass consumerism, the junk food with untraceable origins, the subpar education. (Cash is his children’s teacher, and the kids read Dostoevsky around the campfire, speak multiple languages and say things like, “I’m not a Trotskyist anymore. I’m a Maoist.”)
“Very few people live back-to-the-land, and I chose it because I find it admirable,” Ross said. “As modern people, though there are many wonderful things technology has given us, we’ve also become completely disconnected from the natural environment. We’ve become relatively helpless.”
And helpless is a terrifying feeling, especially when you’re parenting.
I watched the movie contemplating which is more dangerous — scaling a mountain with very little in the way of safety equipment, as Cash’s kids do, or uploading videos to musical.ly, as mine do.
After the recent violence and the attending debates, I’m inclined to see it through a slightly different lens. I see it now as an invitation to contemplate the moral implications of isolating your family from a broken society, rather than working together to repair it.
Working together is our only hope, really. We can’t heal by breaking off into isolated factions and protecting only ourselves. No nation ever has.
Which brings me to a quote I saw on Facebook. (Technology for the win!) It’s attributed to the Talmud, an ancient text of Judaism.
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
That sounds right.
Heidi Stevens: email@example.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13
“Captain Fantastic” opens Friday in The Treasure Valley