Two movies, both about parenting in the current age, opened a month apart this summer. They are very different movies and yet, what they both mark is a moment when American culture can agree that something is very, very wrong with how the upper classes are raising their children.
Bad Moms tells the story of a Chicago mother (Mila Kunis) who, after running herself ragged shuttling her kids, working at a part-time job, and keeping house, has lost sight of herself and her marriage. She decides to chuck it all for a few days of irresponsibility and devil-may-care, I’m-taking-some-time-for-me drinking and pot-smoking binges. It is quite a funny movie and Martha Stewart even makes a terrific cameo.
Captain Fantastic tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who is raising his six kids in an isolated natural paradise in the Pacific Northwest, homeschooling and training them for a variety of physical and intellectual pursuits. Rejecting modern conveniences and modern society, Ben and his wife are trying to raise “philosopher kings.” As the movie opens, Ben’s wife, who has been away for months receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, has managed to commit suicide. Her extended family wants to have a Christian burial (not what she requested in her will) and after some bizarre behavior on Ben’s part, they decide they also want to take custody of the children. It is moving and dramatic at times and Mortensen is quite powerful as a grieving, ideologically committed father.
The two movies are different in many ways and yet both Bad Moms and Captain Fantastic share two things. The first: A series of stinging critiques about mainstream child-rearing. In Bad Moms the complaint is that children are spoiled and entitled, enrolled in schools that are pressuring them to succeed academically but not teaching character. Bad Moms also has almost nothing good to say about men in general and husbands in particular.
The second thing is the movies’ critique of our nation’s educational system. There are too many standardized tests, one of the mothers in Bad Moms complains, and not enough time for kids to just be kids. In Captain Fantastic, Ben shows off how much better his eight-year-old child, who has never set foot in a classroom, understands the Bill of Rights than the child’s middle-school and high-school-aged cousins. Ben has also taught his children to hate consumerism, to kill what they eat, and to “respect” all people—all people except Christians, that is. Apparently, anti-Christian bigotry remains perfectly acceptable in Hollywood. Give due credit however: when father and son argue Marxist philosophy, Ben chastises his son about idealizing the Left. Marxists can be totalitarians just as much as Fascists, he scolds.
Having skillfully identified these ills, however, neither film can fashion any sort of solution for them. Each movie defines the problems they want to send up or analyze—the mania over types of overprotective parenting, the nonsense that women are supposed to be able to do everything, and the equally specious nonsense that men can’t do anything at all. In Captain Fantastic, an additional message emerges: that America is so corrupted by consumerism that to protect your children you have to become some kind of latter day Daniel Boone who teaches kids to slaughter and skin wild animals to get their own food and clothing.
Unfortunately, neither movie can identify core values that might serve as a more lasting remedy to these ills.
Has Captain Fantastic’s Ben provided an idyllic way of raising children by rejecting all the trappings of modern life? Not in the least; eventually he ends up sending his children to a regular school. Why? The movie leaves its audience guessing.
Everything turns out just great for the bad moms, with Amy eventually winning the PTA presidency. Meanwhile her kids have learned to cook for themselves and relax a bit. But how is that even possible when Amy hasn’t taught them any of those things or modeled any good behavior herself? She claims the most important thing in life is for her kids to grow into good people but there is absolutely no evidence that she knows what the word “good” actually means.
These are both movies worth seeing for their entertainment value. But ultimately both lack moral confidence about their message. The filmmakers know something stinks but they can’t bring themselves to fully and honestly identify a better way forward. And that’s a missed opportunity for everyone.