'Humboldt County' Shines Through the Haze

Photo: WISTFUL THINKING. Peter (Jeremy Strong) and Bogart (Fairuza Balk) enjoy the finer points of Humboldt scenery.
Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy
WISTFUL THINKING. Peter (Jeremy Strong) and Bogart (Fairuza Balk) enjoy the finer points of Humboldt scenery.

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The plot of "Humboldt County" sounds like so many other sappy Hollywood scripts: a disillusioned med student takes a trip with a stranger, ditching an overbearing father and a carefully scripted life for a journey of new experiences, self-discovery, and, oh yeah, pot. But Peter's voyage is marked by more than just marijuana smoke, as he lands in Humboldt County for a summer with the Truman family, a cast of great characters that puts a unique take on a tired premise.

Jeremy Strong debuts as Peter Hadley, whose painfully conventional upbringing renders him unprepared for the unorthodox scene in the backwoods of Humboldt County. He soon becomes one of the family, engaged not only in smoking weed but growing it. It is around this endeavor that the movie's thin plot centers, as Peter helps Max (Chris Messina) with what he claims to be his last crop. Beneath Max's perpetual half-smile lies an intensity that surfaces at just the right moments, reflecting his constant parental and occupational fears. His character nearly steals the movie-a impossible feat considering the strength of his co-stars' performances.

Family patriarch Jack (Brad Dourif), a dead ringer for Willie Nelson, exudes a light-hearted wisdom that keeps the movie afloat during dull moments. Rosie (Frances Conroy), Jack's spacey wife, develops from a shallow goofball into the heartfelt portrait of a conflicted mother. Providing many of Humboldt County's most comical and poignant moments is the unlikely duo of Peter and Charity (Madison Davenport), Max's daughter. She's a magnetic presence who remains cute and funny throughout, but avoids being overly precocious, a la Dakota Fanning.

These evocative performances are testaments to an exceptional script, which gives each character ample room to develop. Though Peter is onscreen for nearly the entire film, he never dominates the dialogue. The script deftly weaves between his self-discoveries and those of his fellow actors, who use Peter as a sounding board for their particular philosophies. When gathered together, they share some charming, if not unusual, domestic moments. They coo and encourage Charity's joint-rolling talent like most people would an obedient puppy, while assimilating Peter into the family with practical jokes and dinner table conversations. These scenes are undeniable winners, their predictability undermined by the conviction with which they are carried out.

The camera work, like the film itself, is nothing short of brilliant. The lush fern and redwood forests of Northern California would play welcome host to any amateur with a camera, but the scenes shot by the cameramen of "Humboldt County" are works of art. Light dances off every surface, including the cheeks and scraggly beards of Humboldt's residents, giving them a prophetic glow.

More than using pot as a petty springboard for offhand jokes, "Humboldt County" explores all aspects of marijuana culture. Stoned conversations about life on Mars and related topics persist throughout, but so do the realities of the Trumans' illegal livelihood. Fear of law enforcement and thieves is never far from their minds, a reality the audience discovers along with naive Peter. His development is remarkable-his mindset, along with his attire and habits, slowly transform-but he remains ineffably Peter. His progression is more an education than a conversion, a foray into a unique lifestyle that is portrayed with unbelievable depth. The filmmakers refrain from making Peter the voice of any judgments but instead let his eyes do the talking. There is certainly a lot to say.

Speak with your eyes with Nick at [email protected]

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