Disconnect to connect: The politics of disconnectivity in the film Captain Fantastic

19 minutes to read
Thao Nguyen

Can we become more connected to our life and loved one's through disconnecting? The film Captain Fantastic investigates exactly this question! A critical examination.


The desire to disconnect

How many times have you been determined to turn off your phone or deactivate your Facebook account to restore your self-esteem and find inner peace? How often have you searched for an escapist experience in a book or a trip to some remote mountains? More than ever we are obsessed with being offline, says sociologist and media theorist Nathan Jurgenson in his article The IRL Fetish. Connected digital media today are so ubiquitous in our lives that we feel like we're losing touch with the ‘real’ world because we're constantly interacting with technology. Consequently, some seek solace in unplugging – even just for a few fleeting moments - in pursuit of more ‘in real life’ or authentic experiences.

However, the desire to disconnect is not specific to digital society, nor is it limited to technological non-use. Let us remember the age-old figure of the monk and the hermit who led their life in seclusion to practice religious discipline, the intellectual outcast who retreated into solitude to flee the persecution of his contemporaries, or the avant-garde artist who looked to 'primtive' cultures for inspiration. The disconnected individual is also a recurrent character in cinema, as criminal lovers on the run, teenage runaways, or adventurers setting out into the wild. In all cases, to disconnect is either an act of rebellion, a purposeful quest, or both. This is the first hint for us to think about ‘disconnecting’ as something else and not merely a negation of ‘connecting’, an aspect that we will examine later. Moreover, the aforementioned examples point to disconnection as a voluntary choice and not as a condition imposed on the individual. This leads us to reflect on the motivations behind disconnection/disconnectivity and its social, cultural and political significations.

Captain Fantastic, a comedy/drama film directed by Matt Ross (2016), is the most recent expression in popular culture of the desire to disconnect, manifested through a quest for authenticity and cultural autonomy. The film narrates the journey back to society of the Cash family, who have been living off the grid for fifteen years. In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben and Leslie raise their children with an education that combines survival skills, tough physical training and classic literature of the arts and sciences. They are self-sufficient and have almost no contact with other members of society. However, Leslie’s death forces them to leave their paradise to re-enter the world and resume their relationships with their relatives. The film focuses on this moment of (re)integration, during which Ben’s ideals of parenting and living are confronted with social norms, criticism and legal threat.

The term ‘disconnected’ can designate a person lacking contact with reality, which is precisely the major criticism pointed towards Ben by other family members in the film, regarding the cost of his idealism on the children. At the same time, many people living in modern society are seized by the urge to ‘disconnect’ to regain contact with reality, and might very well be dreaming of living like the Cash family did. These contradictory and sometimes confusing readings of being ‘disconnected’ have prompted me to reflect on the nature of disconnectivity beyond the digital context. What does it mean to be disconnected? What is rejected through disconnectivity? What do disconnected individuals or communities seek?

The technical meaning of the term ‘disconnect’ implies a disruption in connecting to a network, that needs fixing.

Therefore, in this paper, I propose to use the film Captain Fantastic as material for exploring different aspects of disconnectivity. Given the deliberate choice made by the characters to pursue a different way of life apart from society, disconnectivity will be referred to more specifically as a volitional act. The theoretical basis for analysis will consist of literature on the sociocultural significance of the rejection of technology.    

Firstly, I will provide the definitions of disconnectivity within the context of this paper, as well as a theoretical framework. The second section will deal with representations of disconnectivity in the film, how it is manifested through a quest for authenticity. The next section will question the ideologies behind these practices, thus revealing the underlying political discourse of disconnectivity. In the last section, I will discuss the more symbolic and philosophical aspect of disconnectivity, namely its relation to life and death. Ultimately, disconnectivity questions the way we live in society. As Karppi (2011) commented on digital suicide, ‘our life is interconnected with these networks to an extent that we can conceptualize our interactions with machines and technology with notions such as ‘life’,’ death’ and ‘suicide’.’ This remark has become the starting point for my reasoning on disconnectivity on a more abstract level, beyond the scope of not using technology, with the prospect of gaining new perspectives that could in turn be applied to digital disconnect.

Disconnectivity: a political gesture

When you fail to connect your computer to the Internet, a message pops up saying that it is disconnected. The technical meaning of the term ‘disconnect’ implies a disruption in connecting to a network, that needs fixing. The absence of a connection is thus viewed as an error that demands to be repaired. It might not be an unbiased choice of language to frame disconnection as ‘something wrong’. The underlying assumption is that we all want to connect. In the digital society, we are constantly expected to be connected and therefore it seems inevitable and indispensable, if not vital. Connectivity is taken for granted as a norm, or a state of normalcy. Consequently, disconnectivity, conventionally understood as a gesture of withdrawal of individuals from mediated forms of connectivity, i.e. information and communication technologies (ICTs), is considered to be an anomaly. Individuals who opt for disconnectivity, Facebook abstainers for instance, would be perceived as ‘different’ by those who conform to the norm, carrying ‘the stigma of difference from the mainstream’ (Portwood-Stacer, 2012).

What difference(s) do people try to affirm through disconnectivity? Baumer et al. (2015), in an article reviewing studies on technology non-use, state that ‘Moving beyond the individual, the voluntary non-use of technology may function as the production or performance of a particular sociocultural identity’. The material gesture of deactivating one’s Facebook account, turning off notifications on one's phone, or, in a more extreme way, committing digital suicide, could carry social and political meanings.  

Deleting your Facebook account, a way of commmitting digital suicide


Moving beyond the digital divide and questioning the relations between power and agency behind disconnectivity have been the main concern of various papers published in an issue of the journal First Monday on technology non-use, as well as two other studies on the political dimensions of leaving Facebook: Portwood-Stacer (2015) on Facebook abstainers and Karppi (2011) on art projects that offer digital suicide. Portwood-Stacer, in her article, frames the refusal to make use of Facebook as a practice of ‘lifestyle politics’, through which individuals manifest their critique and their rejection of neoliberal consumer culture. Karppi interprets digital suicide as a kind of activism committed against the capitalistic network culture. In the same way, Ems (2015) studies the motivations behind the Amish people’ resistance to adopt technology, revealing it to be a political strategy to protect their cultural autonomy against the influence of the government and corporations, as well as the values that they promote. Even though these studies view disconnectivity through the lens of the non-use of technology, the refusal to use specific platforms, medias or modes of communication could share a more structural signification.

How is this relevant to the film Captain Fantastic? The Cash family, Ben especially, align with people who deliberately unplug in the way that they, too, are considered as an anomaly in society. They represent many discrepancies with the standards of mainstream society, both in their practices and their ideologies, and the contrast is highlighted through their contact with society. With elements from the literature discussed above, we will see how the film constructs a discourse on disconnectivity as one of resistance and control.

Another point I would like to make is that disconnectivity is not only defined through an antagonism with the values rejected by its actors. As stated in the introduction, to understand disconnectivity, it is important to examine it as something and not as a negation of connectivity. According to Satchell and Dourish (2009), rather than ‘an absence or gap, non-use is a form of use’, especially in the case of volitional non-use. This leads us to question the forms of disconnectivity, an issue that Gomez et al. (2015) have tackled using visual methods, by analyzing online images of resistance to ICT.  Following the line of their study, this paper will examine the way disconnectivity is represented as a concrete presence in a visual medium, in this case, a film. In Captain Fantastic, director Matt Ross portrays disconnectivity as a quest for authenticity that emphasizes harmony with nature, the body and the physical world. The analysis will largely rely on Lindholm’s discussion of the concept of authenticity in Culture and Authenticity (2008), particularly Rousseau’s ideas of an authentic life and the modern desire to escape from civilization through travel and adventure.

A quest for authenticity

The film opens with a long bird’s eye shot over immense pine forests covering aged-old mountain chains, followed by a low-angle view of the sun poking through the top of vertiginous pine trees. Nature, in its original and untouched state, is revealed to our eyes in a solemn and immersive manner. The camera then switches to close-up shots of a river and a deer that strolls tranquilly between the leaves. All of these elements, from the very first seconds of the film, express deep nostalgia for our natural state of being, for its purity and innocence. The first human appearance is flickering eyes on a painted face that blends in with the leaves, which will later reveal Bo, the oldest son, disguised as some kind of tribesman hunting for his food. With clear-cut and skillful gestures, he catches the deer, stabs it, cuts its throat and pulls out its heart, which he will eat raw. Other characters – his younger siblings and his father – join him in the rite, then wash themselves in the river, and it becomes clear that they are ‘modern’ Western people living a tribal life.

The opening sequence announces a common aspect of disconnectivity: it is a physical gesture. On the whole, it is moving away from something to be somewhere else. In the case of the non-use of technology and media refusal, it is the material gesture of logging out of a platform or unplugging a device. A pattern identified by Gomez et al. (2015) in images of resistance to ICTs is a reserved space dedicated to not using technology. The film sets the conditions for disconnectivity by first taking place in nature with a total absence of human beings, except for the protagonists – the actors of disconnectivity. The Cash family lives in the wilderness without electricity and other infrastructures of modern society. This physical aspect, that we can relate to the hype over ‘in real life’ experiences, reveals how much our existence is still grounded in the physical, tangible world.

The education that Ben and Leslie envision and implement on their children strongly reflects Rousseau’s idea of a ‘natural education’. 

Retreating into nature is a way of disconnecting from modern society, and the Cash family’s back-to-nature lifestyle is an accurate illustration of romantic ideas of authenticity described in Lindholm (2008). In investigating the emergence of authenticity, Lindholm traces back to the discovery of the primitive Other through trade and exploration that originates in the 15th century, leading to a perception of Western civilization as corrupted in contrast to the purity of indigenous people. Rousseau was the one who furthered the romantic conception of nature. To him, the ‘noble savages’ were free and authentic, living in a simpler culture, closer to the state of nature, which he opposed to the ‘modern corruption’ characterized by vanity and distinction that enchained the modern man. In addition, Rousseau advocated absolute honesty, accompanied by a disregard for other people’s opinions and moral standards of society. Only then could one reveal ‘one’s essential nature’ and lead a truly authentic life (Lindholm, 2008).

Rousseau set the premises for the belief that cultural and social conventions prevent one from being one's authentic and natural self, thus the need to separating oneself from society arose. The ‘tribal’ lifestyle pursued by the Cash family is an actualization of this idea. They manage with rudimentary methods of husbandry, reside in a hut, grow and hunt their own food, drink rainwater and make their own fire for cooking and lighting. Their communications are concise and mainly informational, blatantly straightforward, especially about ‘taboo’ subjects, such as sex and death. There are many moments in the film when the Cash children say things that would be considered gross to the polite ear, for example when the two youngest tell their sister how to kill more effectively during a training, or when they candidly make comments about people’s weight in public. Their absolute honesty is also demonstrated through the way Ben openly talks to his children about rape, cocaine or their mom’s bipolar disorder and suicide, much to the disapproval of his in-laws.

The education that Ben and Leslie envision and implement on their children strongly reflects Rousseau’s idea of a ‘natural education’, which focuses on the child’s freedom and autonomy, as well as on the protection of his good nature through isolation from the wills of others. With regards to the body, the philosopher advised that the child should also be left as free as possible, hence the ease with which Ben allows his children to play with weapons. However, he needs to prepare them for this freedom, hence the rigorous and dangerous survival training.    

This focus on the body is the second aspect of the physical gesture of disconnectivity. Lindholm (2008:48) explains that the ‘edgeworkers’ – a term coined by Lyng (2005) – seek authenticity through ‘powerful bodily sensations’ by practicing high-risk activities like extreme sports, thus rejecting the bourgeois standards of comfort and safety. The body represents an unmediated contact with the world. In the film, the children are taught to hunt animals from a close distance (Bo with the deer) and to butcher them themselves, and are trained to hand-to-hand combat. They also have a natural relationship to death, as shown in a highly emotional scene at the end of the movie when, after having literally ‘rescued’ their mother from the grave, they sit around her dead body in the open coffin in the bus and caress her. Ben makes sure that they always maintain a direct contact with the world around them, not only when they live in nature but also when they come back to society: on the bus, he reminds them to ‘keep their eyes open’; at their aunt’s house, they sleep on the grass, ‘under the stars’.

What does this quest for authenticity mean for disconnectivity? Ben gives his children an idealistic, if not extreme, education. Moreover, he rejects the entire ideologies and functioning of modern society, including capitalism, public institutions, religions, consumerism and moralism. He wants to transmit these beliefs to his children, along with critical thinking. Not only is this highly impractical to put into practice while living in suburbia with the convenience and conventions of modern life, but Ben might also meet the opposition from everyone around him. Therefore, he needs to isolate his family from society in order to create an environment that is optimal to and that facilitates the kind of parenting that he wants to pursuit. It is a way to control the environment and weaken society’s influence on the children. The desire to disconnect and to live differently, in the end, is the desire for control. This introduces us to the underlying political motivations of disconnectivity.

Discourse of control and agency

Captain Fantastic does not hesitate to be political – not the big politics, but the questioning of authority and established structures of American society. The Cash children can cite and explain the American Bill of Rights, to them rich people are fascist capitalist, the hospital is a place to go if a healthy person wants to die, Bo is a Maoist-turned-Trotskyist, and Noam Chomsky’s day is celebrated instead of Christmas. However, the film does not aim to make a judgement with regards to what are right and wrong ideologies; rather, it is about the way ideologies are activated as a mode of resistance. By disconnecting themselves from mainstream society, Ben and Leslie Cash simultaneously object to what they feel is compromising in that world, namely capitalism, consumer culture and state control. Their way to do that is to pursue a lifestyle that strives to go back as closely as possible to nature. It's a lifestyle that emphasizes self-sufficiency and economic autonomy, in which they only meet their basic needs and purchase almost nothing. Their ideological positions are translated through concrete practices, a form of activism that Portwood-Stacer would define as ‘a performative mode of resistance’, in line with the practice of Facebook abstention (Portwood-Stacer, 2012). The idea of resistance can also be identified in a social group to which the Cash family bears major resemblances, the homeschoolers. Romanowski (2006) argues that parents who homeschool either object to the beliefs taught in school, or they disagree with the pedagogy practiced in school. In the end, homeschooling parents challenge the power of public schools by determining what would be the best education for their children. Likewise, the Amish people, a group of avid non-users, place strict limits on technology use, manifesting their resistance to  individualism, consumerism and mobility, while protecting values such as happiness and well-being to empower their communities (Ems, 2015).

The discourse on disconnectivity that emerges from these examples is about control. According to Karppi (2011), our life is embedded into different kinds of social networks that exert control on us by providing ‘machinic subjectivities’, meaning pre-defined social categories with which we will identify. Similarly, Banks (2015) argues that the system seeks standardization to ensure that the behavior of the subjects within the networks is predictable, thus controllable. A way to do that in society is to establish norms to which people act accordingly to keep things in order. School is an institution that produces normativity. Therefore, those who resist being included in the system – the homeschoolers, the Facebook abstainers, or in our case the Cash family – resist external control over them. This is also what the ‘edgeworkers’ seek by taking extreme risks and going to the verge of death, if we follow Lyng’s interpretation of Foucault: in a disciplinary society, transgressing the limits of the body is a form of resisting domination (Lindholm, 2008:50).

The discourse of control reveals how disconnectivity is about the concern for one’s ability to exercise one’s agency against instances of authority. In Captain Fantastic, Ben and the children set out for a ‘mission’ to ‘save mom’, by realizing Leslie’s wish of being cremated instead of being buried in Christian tradition. Their main obstacle is the grandfather Jack, a figure of authority associated with the rich and dominant ruling class, whose power over Ben is mainly legal (he threatens to imprison Ben for child abuse if he tries to interfere in Leslie’s funeral). However, Ben and the kids do not consider themselves to be a disturbance; instead, they are ‘honoring mom’s life’, by reclaiming her identity and her choice to live – and die – in the way that she wants, instead of according to what is considered as right by society. 

A phrase that is repeated by the Cash family throughout the film is: ‘Power to the people – Stick it to the man’. Both are political slogans expressing the rebellious, counterculture, spirit against the oppression by the established powers in society, represented by ‘the Man’. Loyal to this spirit, Ben and the children consistently show a disrespectful attitude towards figures of authority, such as the church. In a final scene of the film, Ben, in his red suit, delivers a eulogy comprised of little more than blasphemy during Leslie’s funeral in church.

Autonomy and self-reliance are also the main goals of the children’s tough training. Ben teaches them self-defense and provides them real with weapons, so they can protect themselves physically. This can be interpreted as criticism towards people living in the mainstream of modern society, who rely too heavily on various services, especially on protection from the government and the army. In the end, it might not be the Cash family who are disconnected, but us ‘normal’ people, for losing touch with our survival instinct, with the source of our food, and with the physical world around us.

Reclaiming life through death, disconnect to connect

Lastly, disconnectivity opens the possibility for individuals to reclaim life. In the digital context, this process is carried out through the act of ‘suicide’, or death, interpreted by Karppi (2011) as a way to separate the online identity and the offline individual, rendering the former irrelevant to the latter, and thus meaningless. In the same way, the film is about the Cash family's struggle not only against the authority of the grandfather, but also against his claim of ownership over Leslie’s life and death. As he insists on following a Christian funeral despite her wish to be cremated, he declares ultimate control over her body. He wants to assign her to categories that do not fully represent her. Ben’s attempt to ‘rescue’ Leslie is not a crazy, selfish idea, nor is it about her body, but about her beliefs. As put by the kids, ‘Mom hated that world’. They want to ‘honor her wish’, meaning to reclaim her life through her identity and her choices as a living person (Karppi, 2011).

The discourse of control reveals how disconnectivity is about the concern for one’s ability to exercise one’s agency against instances of authority.

Another question raised by the movie is the ultimate quest of disconnectivity. In the movie, Leslie embodies both connection and disconnection. One the one hand, she herself is “disconnected”, mentally and physically, because of her bipolar disorder, that leads to her hospitalization and suicide. Death represents disconnection in its most extreme form, an absolute and total disconnection. On the other hand, she is the motivating factor for the family’s re-connection with the world. Her death forces them to go back and resume relationships with their family. She has also been helping Bob with preparing college applications, as she must have understood his desire to reach out to society, to know what is “out there”. Yet, she is absent for the majority of the film, and only ‘comes back’ physically at the end. The only way she is present is through other people’s words. Somehow, she keeps the bond between members of the Cash family strong, by guiding their actions throughout the story. In fact, she is the element that ignites every action and pushes the film forward - it could very well be named ‘Mission: Saving Mom’. The underlying message could be that connection is not always visible, but latent, and demands our efforts to look for it. In the end, what we search for when we disconnect is to connect differently.

A transformative experience

Ben Cash could be considered the best or the worst father, and the Cash family’s ‘disconnected’ life could be a utopia or a nightmare. What remains true are his intentions: he wants the best for his children. He respects their wishes even if these go against what he has intended for them. In the end, it is the children who make the choice to come back to their old way of life, despite being given the opportunity to stay with their grandparents. They acquire the autonomy of decision that Ben wants to teach them in the first place. In other words, the children exercise their own agency in all freedom.

In the same way, disconnectivity can be regarded as a transformative experience. Through an analysis of the film, we have seen how disconnectivity is about reclaiming one’s control and autonomy, but seen from a broader perspective it's also about reclaiming one’s freedom and life. The quest of the hermit in ancient times and that of the twenty-something Facebook quitter might not be that different: both are on a journey in which individuals detach themselves from society’s influence and others’ expectations, in order to better control the input that they want to integrate in their environment. Likewise, in Captain Fantastic, once the knowledge that Ben wants to transmit to his children has been entrenched into their way of thinking, they can ‘come back’ to establish themselves in society. Disconnectivity, in the end, is about how to live differently in society.

Disconnectivity opens the possibility for individuals to reclaim life.

Could art be the answer? It will take great effort to lead the kind of life the Cash family does, but the cinema has provided us with a context in which we can transgress the boundaries of reality. The film as a work of fiction pushes the limits of what is ‘acceptable’ and allows us to imagine how far we can go in the quest for authenticity and disconnectivity. At the same time, it still takes place in the ‘real world’, as it is not a fantasy story or a fairytale. It could be saying that no matter how unreasonable our desire might seem, changes are always possible.

On the other hand, despite its many anti-system ideas, the film still offers us a beautiful and optimistic world, as Leslie writes in her letter, ‘We created a paradise out of Plato’s Republic’. The film is a spark of hope in the battle for disconnectivity, which often causes feelings of cynicism and helplessness, as it is often described as a losing one. To use a quote from Noam Chomsky, an American intellectual and ardent activist known for his radical political views, and the hero of the Cash family: ‘If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.’


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