2019, NR, 81 min. Directed by Louie Schwartzberg. Narrated by Brie Larson.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Dec. 6, 2019
One of the many, many facts that you will ingest in Louie Schwartzberg’s documentary Fantastic Fungi is that there are more than 1.5 million species of yeasts, molds, and mushrooms on this particular planet; and while a good deal of them can be deadly, the majority of them are basically, in a wonderfully clandestine manner, maintaining and repairing our ecosystem, despite humanity’s best intentions to destroy it. Focusing on the ways in which various fungi are a vital part of the cycle of life, as it were, our main tour guide is one Paul Stamets, a mycologist who stomps around various forests and upends deadfall branches to find these things that he is obviously obsessed with (he also sells them, by the way, but we all have to hustle). And as with any subculture, the people who are obsessed? Well, they are really obsessed.
So, a mild primer here: Eukaryotes (the domain to which all fungi belong) are integral in keeping a balance in nature by helping, through their creation from decay, to feed surrounding flora, creating an underground network that is integral to the continued survival of Earth. That aspect alone is amazing, and Schwartzberg and his talking heads are incredibly enthusiastic when discussing how fungi plays such an important part in this world. What is perhaps less compelling in the doc is Schwartzberg’s endless reliance on time-lapse footage of mushrooms blooming. It’s fascinating at first, but becomes an often inadvertently hilarious succession of fungal erections. The director cut his teeth working in visual effects, and Fantastic Fungi has many CGI sequences showing how, say, Neanderthals increased their consciousness with the help of an organism that predates them.
Which is when the film cranks up CCR’s “Fortunate Son” and begins its trek through the psilocybin aspects of fungi. Not just a hallucinogenic stimulant enjoyed by Grateful Dead fans and starving artists trying to discover themselves, the film chronicles how the use of psilocybin can be incredibly helpful in treating mental health issues, from depression and PTSD to alcoholism and substance abuse. It’s heady stuff, and Brie Larson’s gentle narration helps you navigate this quite complex topic. But visual affectations aside (I haven’t even mentioned the inordinate but predictable use of kaleidoscopes), Fantastic Fungi is an engaging look at the scope of an organism that is so much more than a pizza topping or an ingredient in beef stroganoff.