By David Templeton
Captain Fantastic may be the best movie ever made about the dangers and advantages of homeschooling. Quietly released this month, already being talked about as a dark-horse Oscar contender, the small-budget film may sound like a superhero flick. It’s not, at least, not in the way one would immediately assume from its Marvel-DC comics title.
Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, an unconventional father of six, who after nearly 20 years of raising his kids off-the-grid, on an isolated mountain—where their daily studies include literature, physics, martial arts, rock climbing, hunting, taxidermy and deer-and-chicken butchering—a tragedy forces him to bring the kids, ages 5-18, down the mountain and into the company of what his angry and grieving in-laws call “civilization.”
“Oh my god, I loved this movie so much,” says Coley Glover, a longtime Northern California educator and pre-school instructor who now works in Ashland, Oregon. “As a person my age, with a bit of a counterculture background, I could really identify with Viggo Mortenson’s character wanting to retreat into the North Woods.”
There is one moment late in the film that involves a retired school bus named Steve and a whole bunch of chickens, that Glover says affected her especially deeply.
“It made me weep with happiness,” she says. “I love chickens.”
In the film, which contains flashes of Swiss Family Robinson, Ben is shown as a stern educator. He disallows the use of the word “interesting” when discussing books they’ve read. “‘Interesting’ is a non-word,” he tells them. He encourages group discussions of the Bill of Rights and the pros and cons of the novel Lolita, and engages in stunningly frank conversations about everything from sex to death—a subject that rears its head when their mother, described as having battled schizophrenia and depression, kills herself.
As an educator, Glover found his teaching methods both impressive and, sometimes, highly irresponsible.
“They talk about advanced physics,” I point out. “They speak at least seven languages, and one of them has learned Esperanto, just for kicks.”
“With some of it, though, I really think he pushed his kids too hard,” she says. “It’s good to push your kids to be their best, and to take risks, and to be bold, but when he had the entire group climbing up the face of a mountain—that was ridiculously too challenging, for children, to have to do that. As a teacher, watching that, I just thought he was way over the edge.
“But I loved his honesty with his children,” Glover goes on. “When he was there, in his sister’s house, the way the sister dealt with her own children, I thought, was so dishonest. She was willing to lie to her kids, about what had happened to their aunt. But his children, who’d been told the truth about their mother, even though they were in huge grief about it, were able to be really relaxed about it, and accept the truth for what it was—because it was the truth. I really appreciated that.”
“How about when he gives his 5-year-old a copy of The Joy of Sex, after the kid starts asking questions about the meaning of words his older brothers and sisters use in talking about literature?”
“I was actually OK with that,” Glover says. “Sex is just such a part of life. I think it’s wrong to completely hide it from children, and act like it’s this entire, separate, secret category. I thought it was awesome that he gave the kid that book, but the kid didn’t want that. It was weird and boring. He wanted a hunting knife. So when Viggo laughs and pulls out the real present, a hunting knife, the kid is delighted, and I thought that was awesome.”
“The kid wanted what his siblings had been given,” I suggest.
“Yes,” she says. “He wanted to be part of the functioning reality of the family, and the knife represented that. But the book with words and pictures about sex? It didn’t bother me at all that he’d shared that with his child.”
“The biggest conflict in the film,” I suggest, “isn’t so much that he was a bad father for telling the kids the truth all the time—though isn’t it interesting that some people would say that it’s immoral not to lie to kids? The big question is where he’s damaged them by keeping them isolated from the world. They’ve never seen a hamburger or a rotisserie chicken.”
“The older boy,” Glover notes, “when the family is on their way to the funeral, and he meets that girl at the campground, he’s totally unprepared for any kind of romantic encounter, and he sort of makes a fool out of himself, and then blames his dad. He’s not exactly wrong. Viggo really, has in a way, made freaks out of them.”
“But in other ways,” I reply, “they are far more prepared to be a part of the world, to engage in democracy, to become extraordinary people, than the dull, GameBox-addicted cousins they end up encountering.”
“True,” she says, “and though I don’t think it’s actually realistic that a 5-year-old could stand there and argue about the Bill of Rights, I know a lot of homeschooled kids who have been given extraordinary educations. I also know kids who, at the age of 18 don’t know where Canada is, or Mexico is. That’s pretty dire. I know parents who’ve given their kids amazing educations, rich and cultured and complete, and other parents who don’t know shit from Shinola.”
“How do you feel about Ben allowing his kids to attend a funeral while wearing a gas mask or a hat made out of a squirrel?”
“I was fine with that, too,” Glover says, with a gentle laugh. “I think conformity does have its place, of course—but by and large, it’s extremely overrated.”