Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 14, 2021 2:48 pm 
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Going out of style: a counterculture elegy

Fun fact: Well, not fun at all for some. The spreading "legalization" of marijuana is a mixed blessing for folks long in the business of working under the table to make a living as illegal pot growers. It's going to go legal, it's going to be highly regulated, high profit and corporate, and the old growers are going to have to adjust or get out. Where this is particularly a factor may be Humboldt County, California, a longtime haven for counterculture people and for some of the better strains of weed. The chief raison d'être of Freeland, starring Krisha Fairchild, is to make very real for us this vanishing way of life. The settings here - the real pot farms at harvest time, the magnificent redwood-studded landscapes - are nonpareil, the storyline touching but relatively thin and sometimes low energy, like it had smoked a lot of weed.

Devi (Fairchild) may not mind so much growing old; but what she can't help minding is becoming irrelevant. Her years of halcyon commune life, and presumably love, relationships, even family are mostly long ago: The details of her past are something writer-directors Furloni and McLean don't bother with so much, while they do provide real pot farm settings and appropriate-looking people and homemade, cozy, woodland-style houses that are highly atmospheric.

Devi has three young seasonal workers for the harvest, Josh (Frank Moseley), Casey (Cameron Matthews) and Mara (Lily Gladstone). They get to sample the product freely as they work, and it all seems laid back and like family. But they're held at a safe distance, since they sleep in trailers away from her house. They are a totally different generation, and how wide the gap is will come back to haunt Devi later. But for now, she suddenly feels the new bureaucracy closing in when she gets hit with a fine, and her failure to comply with the complicated new growers' permit requirements is in the local paper. A consult with her lawyer isn't too encouraging.

This means she loses her big customer come by truck from Nebraska (Robert Parsons), whose boss tells him he can't deal with her any more because she has now become too visible. In Nebraska pot still ain't legal - yet - but Josh assures Devi it will be, like everywhere else. She doesn't want to believe that. What to do? An old friend who's got the permits and is going legal refuses to help her move her product; he can't. Now she hasn't the cash to pay Josh, Casey, and Mara weekly, and asks them to agree to wait till the harvest is done. What we are beginning to grasp is that Devi is deceiving herself because she doesn't want to see how dire things are about to become.

In a touching moment, Devi accompanies fellow grower Ray (John Craven), who's decided to pull up his plants and movie East, to visit the abandoned commune they both lived and loved and idealistically dreamed in when they were very young, perhaps fifty years ago. But this isn't exactly a high energy sequence, nor is one where Devi goes out to the middle of nowhere, taking a risk to meet a new buyer, and he never even shows up. She visits a Cannabis Business Summit and Expo (real thing) and it's a big turnoff for her.

This is rampant capitalism. Greedy, overambitious, insensitive, impersonal. Everything the counterculture was against, is coming back, and it's called "cannabis." An ugly name. "Pot" and "weed" and "ganja" were so cozy. And of course Big Pharma and the tobacco industry are not far away, and all the dubious, profitable claims of miracle treatment potential for something that used to be just a natural way to get high. Devi flees from the convention, drives home and smokes a bowl. And things go haywire.

Eric Kohn of IndieWire, while praising this film, has called its thriller-ish finale "pecduliar," and Dennis Harvey of Variety thinks it "disappointing" - and clearly unnecessary. We can all agree that this is a powerful character study for which Krisha Fairchild, in a kind of new variation or outgrowth of her central role in Trey Edward Shults' Krisha , is a rich and essential contributor where the script falls way short of where it could have provided a meaningful arc and more three-dimensional storylines. But while the violent finale is disturbing, and obviously a bit forced, I found it also satisfying after so many moments when the movie seemed becalmed. Probably "High Maintenance" - Kohn is right that this could be condensed into one of that great HBO series' sub-episodes - would not have any use for the violence, but to fill out a small feature, it works. The filmmakers, ably helped by the composer William Ryan Fritch, have used their documentary experience to fit in a lot of new-to-us real-life material. The result still feels very indie and very small - if right for SXSW, where Krisha shone and this was to have done. But while I hated Krisha, this provided much to ponder for an old pothead like me and a much more sympathetic role for Krisha Fairchild that shows this seasoned actress' uncanny ability to inhabit a role.

Freeland, 80 mins., debuted in the virtual only May 2020 SXSW, appearing in at least fourteen other mostly local US festivals, and releases in theaters by Dark Star Pictures Oct. 15, 2021, and on demand Nov. 19.

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