The Road Out of Utopia

photo: Cathy Kanavy/Bleecker Street

I

Picture a vast, rich forest in Northwest America. A deer wanders alone, paces, disregards a pair of eyes in the thicket. Silence. A moment later: a flash of blood, a struggle. Its life seeps out onto the forest floor. A young man leans over his kill, pauses. In the quiet, mud-covered figures of all sizes emerge from camouflaged hiding around him; his father and five younger siblings. The father steps forward and slices open the prey’s chest, holding up its warm, vacant heart. He proclaims that the boy is now a man. In the next scene, they’re splashing and laughing as they rinse the mud off in the river.

The Cash family lives in these woods. There’s no sign of electricity in their home, just a beautiful multi-structure compound with everything they need. Books, a greenhouse for vegetables, arrows and knives for hunting. Six children, aged 7 to 18, and their father.

Their training and education is rigorous. Hand-to-hand combat, rock climbing. At the end of each day, they gather around the fire, noses in books. Their father opens his log and checks in with each of his children on their progress. Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov, Lolita. It is a kind of utopia. An American Swiss Family Robinson living off the grid with no desires to be rescued. They are safe and preserved from a commercialistic culture and imbued with all the skills they need to live off the land. This is the life that their parents dreamt of.

“When is Mom coming home?” they ask.

“Soon,” he answers.

II

Ever since societies formed, we have dreamt of the most perfect versions of them. Plato set the stage for an ideal civilization in his Republic, drafting the core philosophy upon which the Cash family’s lifestyle is built. Plato describes that a “true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship” and so Ben Cash and his wife created their own wild society with their family.

The Cash family is as fervent in their beliefs as any church-going clan, but here, in this utopia, their ideology is philosophical discourse. Instead of Christmas, they observe Noam Chomsky’s birthday. Instead of a holy text, they look to literature, develop wilderness skills, and study the sciences. Ben teaches them to be completely self-sufficient; “there’s no cavalry coming” to help if something goes wrong in the woods. Each Cash child is indoctrinated into this worldview. Even their names seem to come from another world, each christened as their own, unique person: Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja, Nai.

Every family is a subculture unique to that group. This is how we speak to each other (or don’t), these are our inside jokes, here is how we identify ourselves to the world around us.

With that framework of identity, be it a political belief, a moral philosophy, or a religious faith, comes a confidence and belonging. There exists a set of rules and structures. We know how the world works, we know what we have to do. Each Cash child can recite the Bill of Rights with the same single-minded clarity that I would recite Psalm 23 in my youth. There is an ancient, unchangeable quality to our holy texts. This is our heritage, passed down to us from our patriarchs.

I found a utopia of my own once. I went to work at a religious communal study center in southern England. I had grown up religious, but there, the rhythm of life was a magnification of my faith: shared meals, lots of time for reading, simple tasks that had value. It seemed like the truest expression of the beliefs that I’d practiced for so long. The center was based in a rural landscape of my dreams. Everything made sense there. Ritual, habit, community, prayer. I was profoundly taken care of.

III

Father Cash drives to the nearest town and makes a cross-country call to the city where Mother has been receiving treatment. He receives the news that she has died. He reports back to his family that she is not coming home.

Their father instructs them to resume their training but the children are united in a clear purpose: They must travel across the country to attend their mother’s funeral.

They pile into their camper-bus and hit the road. They carry their utopia with them out into the world and, out of context, their ideology falters. The children begin to have doubts. Ben leads “Mission: Free the Food,” which is a coordinated plan to steal food from a supermarket. Bodevan, the eldest son, can’t emotionally navigate his first romantic encounter with a young woman. Rellian rebels and holes up in his grandparents’ house; when his teenage sister Vespyr comes to rescue him, she is seriously injured.

As Ben comes into conflict with his extended family upon arrival, he does everything he can to fight for their way of life, including valiantly standing up for his late wife’s own religious beliefs; she was a Buddhist and he advocates to fulfill her wishes of a cremation. His children realize that there’s a very real chance that they could be taken away from him because of his actions.

Ben gets into heated arguments with his sister and father-in-law as they point out that he lied about the children’s education, that he has taken them outside of a conventional upbringing, possibly ill-preparing them for their adult lives.

As Ben is confronted with the rational arguments of his extended family, we realize that we were blind to the Cash’s ideology as well. We had gone along with it and sided with him and it’s a stark realization that he might not be creating a safe space for his children. His ideas might actually be very dangerous.

Everything comes undone for him. The stars are not where he imagined them to be; his compass is lost and no new navigational tool has replaced it. That’s how it must happen for any of us who grew up within a structured way of thinking; we must go out into the world. Our beliefs will have to encounter someone else’s and they might not be able to stand up to it.

IV

When I left my utopia, I didn’t know how to live in the world. The religious ideologies of my childhood didn’t make sense in the outside context, especially when I was so far away from my community members. Everything crumbled over a few short years: My beliefs didn’t hold up as I encountered new ideas and met new kinds of people. My compass disappeared.

The family struggles with what their identity must be, if not in the woods. Although we get a glimpse into the oldest son’s coming of age, Captain Fantastic is a profound story of transformation for the patriarch.

It’s not a story we see very often; the archetype of the patriarch is one of stubbornness, power, and control. Here, Ben Cash follows his own ideology of logic and reason to discover that he might be wrong. He questions the life he built with his partner. It might not be viable without her. The family must grieve their mother and wife, and also grieve the life they used to have; their edenic ways are not suitable for the real world.

My ideologies had to evolve, develop, and change too; they were not destined to remain what they once were. Sometimes, I really miss those beliefs. I miss feeling a part of something. I miss feeling sure.

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think,” Virginia Woolf once wrote in her journal. I walked away from a patriarchal god and became comfortable with mysteries and unknowns. After years of searching, I found my own way of peaceful living in the world and new, steadfast things to believe. I am always starting to get my bearings.

The final moments of the film are quiet ones: We see the Cash family in their new life, still rural and connected to the land, though it looks different than it used to. The beat-up camper-bus is permanently nestled in tall grass, now living out its days as a chicken coop. All five younger Cash children are eating breakfast in a bright farmhouse kitchen, wrapping up before they have to go catch the school bus. We see Ben sitting at the head of his table, reflective. He looks sad but content.

I wonder what his children are thinking about in that farmhouse kitchen. Perhaps they think about the woods. Perhaps they grieve what they used to believe, like I do.