Term I wish someone cleverer than me would coin: one to describe that kind of movie in which a free-spirited (and ever so lightly damaged, like a can of discounted tomatoes) girl latches on to a glum male protagonist and hauls him off to introduce him to joy and laughter see “Garden State,” see “Elizabethtown,” see everything in between. “Humboldt County,” the feature debut of Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky, starts off looking like yet another entry in this genre, with Fairuza Balk playing Bogart, an actress/singer who swoops into L.A. to offer the promise of salvation to depressed med student Peter (Jeremy Strong), whose strict professor father (Peter Bogdanovich) has just failed him in his final class. But after taking Peter home to Humboldt with her after a one night stand, Bogart fades out of the film, which turns instead into a love story between Peter and a way of life a ramshackle, dilated-pupils day-to-day funded by the illicit farming of marijuana. Brad Dourif, always a loopy pleasure, is a curmudgeonly physics prof who fled academia for a life in the woods with his spacey wife (Frances Conroy), his stepson Max (Chris Messina) and Max’s sprite of a daughter (Madison Davenport).
“Humboldt County” involves a whole bunch of gawkish gazing at a rose-colored representation of the neo-hippie Humboldt lifestyle constant weed consumption, a local school funded by a community pool of pot plants, an outhouse, gas lamps and plenty of wide-lensed shots of the eye-poppingly gorgeous landscape on this sparsely settled stretch of northern California coast. But despite all the “Look how kooky!,” the film’s genial and pleasant, and the expected transformation of the exaggeratedly buttoned-up Peter into a flannel-wearing expert on DIY irrigation systems is balanced by the less conventional way the film’s main relationship becomes the friendship between him and the prickly Max, who’s smart enough to see that the life his family is living is both an escape and a trap, and who’s gambling on an oversized crop to lift him out of the cycle. Yes, you can stay too long at the party, and eventually the hubristic Max gets his comeuppance, driving Conroy and Dourif into unwieldy monologues and mild overacting unable to recommend either the outlaw-farmer thing or the rejoin-the-system one, “Humboldt County” settles instead for making the case, vaguely, for doing something in between. Or at least taking a summer off to get really high and look at the ocean, which sounds none too shabby to me.
[Photo: Jeremy Strong in “Humboldt Country,” Embark Productions, 2008]