Writers: Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Stars: Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich, Frances Conroy, Madison Davenport, Brad Dourif, Chris Messina and Jeremy Strong
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Humboldt County is an indie drama from Embark Productions that was picked up for theatrical distribution by Magnolia in 2008, after a resonant set of screenings at SXSW, and, while it has met a variety of responses, it found a passionate core audience, making it an underground cult hit. Dourif is far from the film’s only recognisable face, with Peter Bogdanovich, Fairuza Balk and Frances Conroy all prominent in an ensemble cast. The lead, however, was brand new. He’s Jeremy Strong, no household name but an actor who has done very well for himself since his screen debut here. You’re likely to recognise his face because his nineteen films thus far include four which have been nominated for an Oscar: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Selma and his most recent, The Big Short. He’s perfectly cast as a clueless young man, Peter Hadley, who hasn’t seen much of life as he’s been living his father’s dreams rather than his own. We first meet him as he takes his medical school final, only to find that Prof Hadley fails him. That’s dad, who’s ‘unbelievably disappointed’.
And this is how Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, who wrote and directed the film, found an audience. The odd thing is that this is far from the usual druggie movie. It’s unashamedly pro-marijuana, but it’s no propaganda film. I’m not sure if weed is the MacGuffin of the piece or just a convenient local symbol for the freedom that the characters really crave. Perhaps it’s both. Certainly, everyone in the film seems to care about it, whether they’re the hippie types with a few plants to earn from, those trying to get rich with a big crop or the DEA who are content to burn the fields when they find them rather than seek out and arrest their owners, but it’s never the focus of the story, merely a common thread for the people in it. It seems just as important to read it as a symbol though, a badge that those who choose to opt out of conventional society adopt because it’s illegal but commonplace. This isn’t about pro-pot people vs anti-pot people, it’s about what freedom really means and who gets to define it and that runs a lot deeper than smoking weed.
The set up of the story is, of course, to throw Peter into Jack’s world and keep him from leaving until he’s learned something about living his own life rather than his father’s. With Bogart gone as quickly as she arrived, Peter has no ride out of there and so he finds himself paired off with Max, who will drive him to the bus stop after they check on irrigation, which naturally takes so long that the buses have stopped running when they’re done; he feels rather awkward alongside a man with whom he has no common ground but a shared lover. It’s Jack who starts to open his eyes, beginning when he tags along to take Charity to school and discovers that Jack and other locals financed and built the Pencil Patch because the nearest school is fifty miles away. Peter is alternately intrigued and bemused by conversations that he initially overhears but gradually becomes part of: Rosie, Jack’s partner, wants to colonise Mars, for instance, and she and others rant about personal bugbears out of the blue. Sudden outbreaks of honesty aren’t what Peter is used to.
In her way, Charity is as important a character to this film as Jack, because together they ably highlight how this isn’t just a fleeting thing. They’re two generations apart but they share the epitome of freedom, living off the grid and enjoying the life they have. Max, in between them, is the one who isn’t happy; he’s farming a huge crop in the hope that he can get rich and get out of there. It’s easy to read into him as having fallen for the sort of mainstream cultural expectations that the rest of his family have happily opted out of. It’s insightful to look at how each of the characters ends the movie, not only Peter, who gets a fantastic open-ended final scene, also notable for how much he isn’t in it. If that sounds cryptic, then watch the movie and you’ll understand. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it in a decade or two highlighted in the future equivalent of YouTube collages of great movie endings. In its way, it’s as iconic and as representative of its time as the more famous endings of Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot or Planet of the Apes.
It’s unfair for this to be remembered as a drug film, because it’s a superb drama, not so much for its plot as for its depth of character. Gordsky and Jacobs cast well and wrote well for those actors, who together build a strong picture of Humboldt County that, after 97 minutes, feels like we’ve lived there for years. It’s enticing but also dangerous and none of the characters could honestly claim their quest for freedom as pain free. There’s a lot of elation here but there’s also a lot of heartbreak and the suggestion isn’t that one must lead to the other. I don’t think the directors really wanted to do anything more than to paint this place onto the screen in as clear a way as they could and they achieved that. We appreciate that life in Humboldt County isn’t as blissful or as horrifying as the polarised views of most would suggest. It’s neither and both and that’s what makes it so enticing. We can call out Strong, Dourif or Davenport, with justification, but really the best performance here came from Gordsky and Jacobs as scriptwriters.
Collin Armstrong: SXSW 2008 - interview with HUMBOLDT COUNTY writers/directors Danny Jacobs & Darren Grodsky