Exit Poll: “Fantastic Fungi” is a Hallucinatory Dive Down the Rabbit Hole

Published November 4, 2019

Exit Poll is a series exploring the good, bad, and outright deranged films our editors are watching. This week: Mara Veitch on Fantastic Fungi, a nature documentary enjoying a limited run at BAM that provides a psychedelic foray into the fungal underworld, and is possibly the most entertaining thing you’ll see in theaters this year. 

For those of us who crave a dose of high-resolution nature pornography to close out a long day in the metropolis, Fantastic Fungi offers viewers the head-scratching combination of trippy time-lapses and hippie feelings circles we didn’t know we needed. Through a mix of personal testimony, lovably crude CGI renderings of the subterranean landscape, and swirling mandalas reminiscent of a ’60s dorm room, Fantastic Fungi is as campy as it is charming, as bizarre as it is thought-provoking.

The film—part eco-evangelism, part fungal fever dream—is directed by Louis Schwartzberg, veteran of National Geographic (and also, evidently, of the Hallmark Channel). Schwartzberg hits us in the ocular nerve with countless shots of fluorescent Witches Butters and Lions Manes swerving through layers of forest detritus on foamy stalks. The film’s leading talking head is Paul Stamets, a mushroom farmer whose amateur research has led to significant strides in the integration of fungi and pharmaceuticals, and who answers questions in repose on the forest floor. Stamets is backed by an ensemble of fungus fanatics and old hippies whose research tells them that the carbon-storing properties of fungal networks could solve our climate problems, and that tripping on mushrooms could solve our societal ones. Cameos by the likes of food journalist Michael Pollan (“mushrooms really don’t give a shit”) and biologist Suzanne Simard lend the film a legitimacy it really wasn’t looking for to begin with. 

Despite Fantastic Fungi’s at times amateurish aesthetic, there’s something refreshing about an optimistic nature documentary, and about seeing the kind of genuine joy that a mushroom can bring to the big screen. In an era of dying bees and melting ice caps, it’s no small feat for a nature documentarian to leave viewers bolstered and inspired. Visuals aside, witnessing the excitement of elderly foragers dangling frothy, poison-hued fungi in front of the camera is worth the watch. 

How do the fungi feel about their sudden rise to fame? Let none other than Brie Larson tell you— in Fantastic Fungi, the Academy Award winner and Queen of the Mushroom Kingdom brings the underworld to life with her first-person narration of the mushroom experience. (“You may not see us, but we are beneath you, everywhere you go.”) In the theater, this feels less Big Brother and more church group: there’s something very earnest about Fantastic Fungi, and it’ll have a generation of jaded tote-bagged twenty-somethings transfixed for the entirety of its 82-minute run time.