Viggo Mortenson gives the most sincere performance of his career in perhaps the most underrated movie of the year. Flying too far under the radar, “Captain Fantastic” is an offbeat, heartwarming celebration of life, death and the family that guides us.

Evoking the same quirkiness that touched our hearts and split our sides in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the film boasts a cast of eccentric characters who overcome emotional milestones within a traveling bus named Steve. It’s a journey of hilarity and depth not to be missed.

Set in the wilds of Washington, the cinematography of “Captain Fantastic” is pure eye candy for the outdoorsman in us all. The camera floats over rolling hills of dense pine, it soaks in the forest floor’s dappled light and wonders at the immensity of soaring cliff faces. It’s a natural paradise, and in the heart of this wild Utopia, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie raise their six children.

Isolated from the rest of society, the kids’ existence revolves around a rigid schedule devoted to physical athleticism and critical thinking. While other children their age plod through gym class and fractions, the Cash brood debate maoist philosophy, marxism and advanced physics under the strict tutelage of their father.

Their remote existence seems idyllic, and the audience is nearly ready to hand Cash a “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt. But a series of events gradually poke holes in the family’s free-thinking philosophies, beginning with the sudden death of their mother.

Risking their way of life and the suspicious eye of outsiders, Ben and his children embark on a mission to “save mom” when her own mother and father refuse to follow their daughter’s dying wish to be cremated.

The film’s particular strength lies in director Matt Ross’ adept balance of emotionally heavy themes with the hilariously embarrassing antics of this sheltered, free-wheeling family. Each scene is layered with significance, humor and a sensibility that’s not overly sentimental, particularly when dealing with parenting and religion.

In one scene the eldest Cash sibling, Bo (George MacKay) proposes to a young woman he met only hours before. It’s a funny but heartbreaking scene as the absurd outburst of affection reveals to Bo just how little of life he understands.

In another scene Ben Cash, a pulls-no-punches hippie who celebrates Noam Chomsky Day in place of Christmas, disparages the repressive nature of organized religion, slamming his hand on his wife’s coffin for effect, all while standing on the altar of a Catholic church.

The beauty of Ross’ work is in his ability to draw the outsider in. The audience simultaneously appreciates the perspective of the Cash family, while cringing as they break every cultural norm of mainstream society. This forces the viewer to reconcile the film’s central conflict — how should a parent raise their children?

With an all-around talented cast, this joyful exploration of ideas is an unorthodox and unexpected ride. To catch this bus though you’ll have to hurry to theaters tonight. After that plan on heading north or south along I-5 to catch this flick.

Katie Alaimo is a designer and photographer with The News-Review. She can be reached at kalaimo@nrtoday.com.

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