Lost in the outcry over the Cannes Jury’s decision last night to give its top two prizes to movies that have either divided or enraged critics has been the happy fact that Silicon Valley’s Hooli CEO Gavin Belson, known in the world of reality as Matt Ross, also won a major directing prize at the festival. Ross’s film, Captain Fantastic, is a crowd-pleasing cross between The Swiss Family Robinson and Little Miss Sunshine for a Bernie Sanders era. It’s about progressive super-dad Ben (a very beard-y Viggo Mortensen), who’s raising his six incredibly attractive and precocious kids off the grid in a yurt in rural Washington. They hunt as a rite of passage, do running drills up hills, get quizzed on the Constitution and Marx, and are completely cut off from cell phones and televisions, until they find out that their bipolar mother has killed herself, and they must re-enter the modern world to attend her funeral. And somehow, with that premise, it manages to be the kind of movie that leaves you grinning while walking out of the theater; at both Sundance, where it debuted, and Cannes it got lengthy standing ovations. It also won Ross the Best Director prize for Cannes’s Un Certain Regard competition for first- and second-time filmmakers. (Ross’s first feature was 2012’s 28 Hotel Rooms.)
The most amazing thing about Captain Fantastic may be the shock of seeing Ross at Q&As and thinking, The guy with Gavin Belson’s face directed this? I agree with Variety’s Peter Debruge that this movie is so assured and arresting in its ability to incite excitement that it could “pass for a fourth or fifth feature.” Plus, it’s fascinating just how directly in conflict the movie’s anti-capitalist themes of mountain men versus corporate drones are with Ross’s character on Silicon Valley, who would make corporate drones of all of us if he could, and then meditate.
Ross wrote Captain Fantastic years before signing on for Silicon Valley, so it’s not a reaction to the HBO show’s world. Ross made his first short film in 1997, so, he says, “It’s a coincidence, frankly, that I happen to be on a show that’s as successful at the same time that this is happening.” He sees the movie as being less about his childhood than about his current reality as a father (“the movie was a way for me to construct or contextualize or dramatize questions I have about being a parent, and frankly, about being a man,” he says), though he concedes that he did grow up living on various communes his mother started. During summers, they lived in a tepee, which is featured in the movie. And like the Fantastic family, Ross actually does celebrate Noam Chomsky day, which is a holiday he invented. In the movie, Mortensen’s Ben marks the occasion by giving the older kids hunting weapons and the 6-year-old who asked about the birds and the bees a copy of The Joy of Sex.
Ross’s trip to get back to Cannes to claim his prize in a lot of ways mirrors the school bus trek Ben and his brood of hippie kids take to bury his wife and their mother. Like most people who have movies at the fest, Ross left town after it had screened and took his kids, who go to a French-American school in the States, to Paris for the first time. “I think we had all just eaten a pastry and then we were at this costume museum and we got a phone call to come back,” says Ross. The call was vague, just that the movie was going to win something and they’d like him to be present. “It was out of a bad movie, frankly, we were running back to our Airbnb and packing four people, clothes everywhere, jumped in a cab, raced to the airport, which actually wound up being the wrong airport.” They got to Cannes just as the ceremony was starting, and had to jump out of a car in their dresses and tuxes and run five blocks to the Palais because traffic was so bad. Ross had been sure it would be an acting prize for Mortensen, “which I would love to happen because I think he’s brilliant in the film,” he says. “But winning the directing award was, for me, about as special as anything I would’ve hoped for.”