Single fatherhood: Eighth Grade and Captain Fantastic

Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) in the RSC Hamlet, shown on the BBC

A wise friend once pointed out to me something that I still can’t believe I missed – Hamlet’s Polonius appears to be a single father. It goes completely under the radar because his notorious tedium is the standout feature about him.

Single fatherhood always feels like a neglected theme. It’s still staged very carefully – almost always as a result of a dying mother rather than a separation or custody battle. But that doesn’t make the stories or screenplays any less compelling. Single fatherhood is a striking common factor of two of the best films I’ve seen in recent years, Eighth Grade and Captain Fantastic.

Eighth Grade (2018) is a remarkable ‘coming-of-age’ case study of a young teenager, Kayla, who lives a solitary existence in school and is dependent on technology for everything – entertainment, socialising and reflection – to remedy her social anxiety.

Of these various pastimes, the reflection part is the most interesting. We see her publishing ‘advice’ videos on topics such as ‘putting yourself out there’ that are barely viewed, which makes them effectively private suggestions to herself.

Her doting father, Mark, is a distant background presence in the film. He soaks up the bouts of awkwardness and teenage attitude with quiet concern but is otherwise quite hands-off. This gets harder as his daughter prepares to adapt to a new world of high school and he doesn’t know quite what to do.

It’s a stretch to compare him to Polonius, but he does become a embarrassment in his naive efforts to help an introverted teenager who would rather communicate into an empty digital void than with him.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in Eighth Grade
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in Eighth Grade

This film reminds me of a great deal – not just of my own past, but also the distance that time creates from it. Billy Hicks’s one-man play ‘Connecting’ explored a similar experience of teenage life as new online social opportunities (MSN, MySpace, LiveJournal, Facebook) were emerging in the late 90s and early 2000s.

The speed and depth of immersion in new technological fads is one of Eighth Grade‘s central themes. The older teenagers describe Kayla as being of a ‘different generation’ and ‘wired differently’ despite being just four years younger. Such is the pace of change.

Director Bo Burnham said he wanted to portray a generation being raised in a culture that they did not create but which expects them to exhibit their lives online for judgement.

For me, this echoes Gareth Edwards’ prescient point about the age of the UK Higher Education workforce. Despite being a sector for young people, only 3% of its workers belong to the generation that Burnham is representing. The other 97% have chosen to engage with the internet rather than the internet engaging with them.

It’s a stark reminder that understanding your audience cannot be guesswork – not least when their world is evolving so quickly, even they feel they can’t keep up.

For millenials, Eighth Grade offers a beautifully recognised and compassionate glimpse into what adolescent life has become in a digital landscape that we popularised – and how little many of us understand about it now.

The film has its share of comic and dark moments but doesn’t allow itself to get defined by either. Unlike extravertish 80s classics on the pursuit of teen popularity, the piercing and painful accuracy of Eighth Grade earns it the right to be taken seriously.

Captain Fantastic (2016) is a remarkable contrast to this. Patriarchal single father, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), is raising six children in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, which he terms their ‘paradise’. The distance to the ‘real world’ is as literal here as it is metaphorical in Eighth Grade.

The family lives a nomadic life with practically no technology. Ben teaches his children a full array of survival skills out in the wild, but also a surprisingly deep range of cultural and political knowledge. The children are well-read; taught to memorise but also to analyse and think philosophically.

Naturally, the parental relationship is as intense here as it is sheltered in Eighth Grade. Just minutes in, Mortensen has to break the devastating news to the children that their mother has committed suicide in hospital, which he does in unfiltered fashion.

This raw honesty and dialogue that treats all the children as adults (and equals) is what keeps the family unified. But this unity is soon tested when the family travels across the country to attend their mother’s funeral (in defiance of her parents’ wishes). The children are exposed to urban, commercial America for the first time, with all its temptations.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) in Captain Fantastic
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) in Captain Fantastic

As the film progresses, we’re regularly drawn to question whether the father has done the right thing by his children.

We root for Ben when he is criticised by his sister’s family, who have raised two unpleasant boys. But later, when Ben’s stern father-in-law queries some of the children’s activities and the injuries they’ve sustained, judgement on their way of life begins to look more complex. Is he a successful father, or is it all just in his own head? It feels bound to unravel, and it does.

At the heart of both films is that you cannot teach everything. Children must learn by their mistakes, however harsh or protected their environment. And adults, even super-human ones, cannot know everything.

The eldest son, Bo, who has secretly applied to Ivy League colleges at his mother’s encouragement before her death, eventually cracks that everything he has learnt has come from books, not experience. It’s a rare admission of his father’s failing that he needs to be reminded of that.

Both films are tough and even uncomfortable viewing at times, but both return a unique and fulfilling sense of hope and rebuilt togetherness. A key ingredient to their success is that the children learn enough to decide for themselves whether they believe their single dads to have done the best for them.

And with that, we’re left with a final question: who is anyone else to judge?


Still Life

A line of work we don’t think about too often is what happens to the dead when there’s nobody left. A poem by Rory Waterman and Uberto Pasolini’s remarkable ‘Still Life’ (2013) give us plenty of room for thought. … More Still Life


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