'Captain Fantastic' Takes A Stand Against Dumbing Down Young Girls In Hollywood

Though it's hard to admit, while watching Captain Fantastic , an on-screen eight-year-old makes me rethink my 13 years spent in a public education system, a hard-earned journalism degree, my career path, and just life in general. Yes, the portrayals of such brilliant kids in the highly talked-about Indie flick made me briefly feel like I had the IQ of an ant. At the same time, watching young women on screen who range in age and could kick my ass physically and mentally was a refreshing wakeup call. When is the last time, if ever, I’ve seen such strong young girls in Hollywood? I truly can’t recall. When catching up with cast members Samantha Isler (17), Annalise Basso (17), Shree Crooks (11), and Kathryn Hahn (42) just before the release of the film on Friday, I see they are all well-aware about how this movie is helping put portrayals of ditzy, incompetent young girls on the silver screen to bed.

The film, directed by Matt Ross, is the story of a man (Viggo Mortensen) who tells conventional society to f*ck off by raising his six children in the wilderness, challenging them with books, philosophies and physical tasks, making them stronger by the day and excelling in all areas above the average child. They’re admirably curious, analytical, independent, and challenge their elders simply because they want to learn. In real life, the young girls from the film are each incredibly well-spoken and mature, which only makes me praise them, and this film, even more.

Isler, who plays 15-year-old Kielyr, acknowledges how smart young women are a rare breed in show business, at least on screen. “It’s important for people to see this movie because a lot of times, especially in film, children are not portrayed as very intelligent or bright and they’re not given much credit. They have a lack of knowledge and intelligence,” she explains. It’s true. To put things into perspective, Crooks’s character, eight-year-old Kaja, can not only define, but recite the Bill of Rights.

To no surprise, audiences have been delightfully surprised, to say the least. Basso, who plays Kielyr’s (Isler) twin Vespyr, says they should be. “You don’t normally see children represented in this way where they’re so confident in who they are. Especially the oldest girls in the family, that’s where you see they’re goddesses and smart,” she says.

What’s so enlightening is seeing young women who aren’t consumed with the usual things middle and high school girls are. “They’re not caring about how they look or concerning themselves with, ‘Oh my god, boyfriends’ and ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna go date the captain of the football team,’” says Basso. She and Isler both have high hopes that their intelligent, strong-willed characters will influence young girls to put their priorities and energies elsewhere.

“I hope that it inspires young women to focus more on themselves instead of other people and how society values them,” says Basso. Isler chimes in, saying, “This movie almost encourages them to go out and be smart and learn, have insight of what’s going on in the world. Kids nowadays are so invested in all this other stuff that’s going on in their lives that they don’t really take time to take in what’s actually important,” she says.

And they’re walking the walk.

Even at just 17, taking on these characters shifted their outlooks on life. “It changed my priorities completely,” Isler admits. “I was very focused on myself, but not in the right way. I was trying very, very hard [in school], I cared very much about pleasing my friends and doing things that wouldn’t make me genuinely happy,” she says. Didn’t we all do this in high school?

Isler admits she is guilty of being consumed with typical teenage-girl things like friends, boys, and a social life. But these things don’t have to be so typical of women at that age, and Isler changed her ways even when the film wrapped. “After doing this film and shooting, I had this sudden thirst for knowledge and I began reading so much more and I think I became a little bit more comfortable with myself,” she says. “That movie made me a lot more open-minded. I think everyone who sees the movie will hopefully get something out of it like that.”

In more ways than one, this isn’t your average family flick, the filming process included. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes players, the film’s child stars were trained and treated as if they were adults, on and off screen. “These kids [were] all given such beautiful material to absorb and there were all just not typical kid actors at all,” says Kathryn Hahn. “They were just amazing actors, period.” Aside from being naturally talented actors, they handled their training and rules like champs. “They weren’t allowed to look at technology during the making of the movie or eat sugar at all,” says Hahn. “They had strict rules put on them through Matt and Viggo. Because of that, they were just deep in something that I don’t think they could’ve, had they been rewarded with M&M’s after every take.”

The process may have been adult-like and rigorous, but the girls wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Viggo treated us like adults, but in the way where he put all this responsibility on us, like too much to handle,” says Basso. “He treated us like we were equals and that was something that was very special, especially coming from someone like Viggo Mortensen who’s this successful actor.” This responsibility was put on by the director, Ross, as well, and the kids embraced it. “He gave us so much freedom with our characters and with freedom comes responsibility, so there’s definitely adult-like responsibility, but not so much that we couldn’t handle it,” Basso says.

It clearly paid off. I’m still awestruck by this crew, from both watching them on screen to being in their presence and having conversation with them. I can only hope filmmakers see Captain and are as moved as I am, enough to make changes and depict girls who are concerned with life and learning, and not just going to the mall or getting a boy to like them. “Anytime a child is depicted and respected enough to not just be a two-dimensional, cute-sounding board it's always of value,” says Hahn. Hopefully Hollywood will realize this too, and more young, badass women will be represented on its screens.

Images: Bleecker Street (4)