Sometimes casting the most obvious actor for a role can feel lazy and uninspired. Looking for a kooky, awkwardly charming young modern woman? Please look further than Greta Gerwig. And find someone other than Tom Hanks to play the next humbly heroic middle-aged American white guy.
But once in a while the perfect choice is the one that comes to mind right away. The lead character in “Captain Fantastic” is a modern-day hippie dad, raising his brood off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. He can teach you the work of Noam Chomsky and how to skin a deer. He’s a wilderness warrior with a full heart and an uncompromising soul, kind of a 21st century version of Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings.” And Viggo Mortensen’s really the only guy to play him.
As writer-director Matt Ross’ thoroughly enjoyable movie kicks off, Ben Cash (Mortensen) and his six children seem solidly ensconced in an Arcadian utopia. They live (mostly) off the land, with no electricity but plenty of books. In an echo of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s & 70s, Ben and his wife Leslie have chosen to secede from the world of disposable plastic and pop culture ephemera, and any parent who’s had to enforce ‘screen time’ rules or explain what a Kardashian is can surely empathize with their decision.
But despite its triumphal, super-heroic title, “Captain Fantastic” is anything but a one-note celebration of the Cash family’s ideological purity. Reality has a way of intruding upon utopias, and Leslie is conspicuous in her absence. It turns out she’s been hospitalized for depression, and when she dies (it’s in the trailer!) the clan piles in their rickety school bus and heads to Arizona for her funeral.
Their road trip offers opportunities for culture-clash comedy, including a brief, amorous encounter between oldest son Bo (George MacKay) and a pretty girl at an RV park. But it’s also a poignant reminder of the social connections and opportunities the children have missed out on living in the woods. The conflict between Ben’s ideals and the real world come into stark contrast once Leslie’s straight-backed father Jack (Frank Langella) comes on the scene. Jack feels that Ben’s style of parenting amounts to child abuse, and he vies for custody of the kids.
The conflict between Ben and Jack dominates the second half of “Captain Fantastic,” but the stern, grieving Jack is anything but a cardboard villain. Ross, an actor best known for TV roles (“Big Love,” “Silicon Valley”), is making just his second feature behind the camera here, but his visual eye, narrative sense, and empathy for characters all feel fully formed. He also gets great character work out of Ann Dowd, as Jack’s wife, and Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn as Ben’s sister and brother-in-law.
Mortensen is the linchpin to the whole movie, though. His combination of weathered wisdom, intellectual and physical fitness, and mischievous spark makes Ben the perfect dad. And his expressions of soulful regret and outsized pride make him fully human, which is even better.
“Captain Fantastic” may take one or two more detours than needed on the way to its powerful conclusion. But when it gets there, complete with a surprising, moving rendition of an unexpected song, it’s well worth the trip.
(118 min., rated R [for language and a brief shot of full-frontal Viggo], opens Friday, July 15 at Regal Fox Tower) GRADE: A-