It was the fifth, count ’em fifth, movie of the day for me here on this Tuesday in Cannes. I saw everything in languages ranging from Spanish (Almodovar’s Julieta) to Tagalog (Mama Rosa) to Portugese (a delicious Sonia Braga in Aquarius) and English channeled thru French director Olivier Assayas (Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper — and there were NO boos at my screening). All of these are official contenders in the main Cannes Competition.
But it was in the lesser but often more intriguing Un Certain Regard sidebar that the best film of the day, maybe the festival, and maybe so far this year (at least for me) as Captain Fantastic was unveiled to a packed crowd of adoring French (and other) moviegoers.
And in answer to your first question, no it is NOT a superhero comic book movie. Not even close. The comedy-drama written and directed by Matt Ross got its international premiere here in Cannes but actually debuted last January in Sundance, where it was supposedly well-received but not given nearly the buzz of other titles there like The Birth Of A Nation and Manchester By The Sea. I wasn’t in Sundance (my colleagues Mike Fleming and Dominic Patten get that gig), so I can’t speak for the vibe at that fest, but I can say on the basis of Captain Fantastic’s screening Tuesday night on the Cote d’Azur it is a whole new ball game for the movie, as it was rapturously received with applause actually being heard at key moments throughout and a near-10-minute standing ovation from the beginning of end credits to lights out. Fantastique indeed. This feels like the real premiere of the movie, as one of its producers told me at the Nikki Beach after-party.
The movie already had a distributor as Bleecker Street had boarded it very early in pre-production, so trade and other key press weren’t as interested in it as a potential sales breakout title in Sundance. Well, breakout it did here and I will go on record and say Bleecker Street could have a word-of-mouth hit on its hands when it opens July 8 — if audiences can get beyond that title, which actually refers to star Viggo Mortensen’s attempts to be the perfect if eccentric dad to a big brood of his kids after the death of his wife. The issue of the title, which all involved seem to love, came up, but execs hope the marketing will make clear this isn’t a comic book enterprise.
The movie is a total original, with Mortensen playing an offbeat dad who raises his six kids alone, home schooling them with his own unique life lesson plans in the rustic backwoods of the Pacific Northwest. A tragedy brings them back to civilization and confrontation with his father-in-law (Frank Langella), and ultimately to major life decisions. At that point it becomes a real fish-out-of-water tale that goes in surprising directions. The film really tries to answer the question of what makes a family, and it succeeds better than any film of its ilk since, at least, the Oscar-nominated and winning sleeper Little Miss Sunshine 10 years ago. It all came from Ross, who is also an actor and current co-star of Silicon Valley, and his own questions about what it is to be a father. “The genesis of it was really being a father, thinking a lot about what are my values and what I want to pass on to my children,” he said. “I was trying to think of a way to dramatize it and ask questions about what you want to be. What are you going to do with your life and what kind of person do you want to be?”
This is only Ross’ second film as a writer-director following the very small indie 28 Hotel Rooms, but it was far more challenging considering he was working with six kids (all terrific actors) who could only act six hours a day due to child labor laws, and the fact that it is essentially a road picture in a similar vein to Little Miss Sunshine. They travel by large school bus. It was shot in 39 days in two states, a big time span for an independently made film but far less than what a major studio movie would get, and this film looks as good as any of them.
By the way, this total heartwarming, funny, sad, beautifully performed little gem is exactly the kind of film the majors have abandoned. Too bad, but indie studios like Bleecker Street, started by Andrew Karpen after he left Focus and now in its second full year (with Eye In The Sky its biggest grosser yet), are becoming the go-to places for this kind of material. Karpen told me at the Nikki Beach party that they are taking the release slow, going limited in Los Angeles and New York and then widening throughout the summer to keep it going into the fall. It’s a smart strategy as this can be a real alternative in the uber-competitive summer months for discerning audiences who need to discover a film like this one.
Some Golden Globe voters were at the premiere and it was thumbs up from at least one I spoke to. Although it is early, and the film needs to catch fire, there is indeed award potential here in some key categories including screenplay, and most definitely for Mortensen who has never been better. “This is the kind of part I have never played before and I thought it was important for me to do,” he told me, adding that he prepared partly by spending several weeks soaking up the rural settings of the film’s first scenes. The film in fact starts out like an intense action flick with a deer killing that spells anything but comedy. “I was very nervous watching the audience tonight, as the opening of the film is a bit of a challenge, but you could just tell when they eased into it,” he said.
Mortensen also mentioned that he thinks the movie may be just right for its time, intentional or not, in much the same way that other films that played Cannes like Easy Rider and Taxi Driver also tapped into the zeitgeist. Among those soaking it all up and introduced by Cannes fest guru Thierry Fremaux in the audience were Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry (the latter in town to perform at Thursday’s big amfAR charity event at the Hotel Du Cap). Producers of the film, including Shivani Rawat and Monica Levinson of ShivHans Pictures, and Jamie Patricof and Lynette Howell of Electric City Entertainment, also had more to celebrate than just a successful Cannes premiere. It was Howell’s birthday, and the whole party stopped to sing those wishes to her. As a Cannes veteran, she told me she almost always spends her birthday at the festival. “And I have had a lot of great birthdays here,” she said. “But this one will be hard to top.”