The latest entry in the growing field of indie youth ensemble films, “Bongwater” is an uneven, intermittently likable movie about a group of Portland residents for whom getting high is a way of life. While its fresh-faced but largely unknown cast members frequently rise above the material, pic isn’t distinctive enough to suggest it will yield more than a limited run in specialized markets.
The story opens with a bang in medias res. An unidentified young man dashes out of a house. Doors slam. A woman, carrying suitcases, leaves soon after. In the chaos, a smoldering bong topples over, igniting the adjacent curtains. Remainder of the sequence cross-cuts between the fire, as flames consume the house, and the young man drinking shots at a strip club, ignorant of the devastation that awaits him at home.
With that forceful opening, helmer Richard Sears successfully piques one’s curiosity, though the rest of the movie never quite attains the same dynamic energy level. A temporal shift then takes the action back three weeks as David (Luke Wilson, of “Bottle Rocket”), an aspiring artist and successful pot dealer, metes out his stash to friends and associates.
Suddenly, a fiery redhead, Serena (Alicia Witt), bursts into his house. She demands to know why her friend Jennifer (Amy Locane) is unconscious, blaming David for Jennifer’s condition.
Despite their inauspicious start, Serena and David become friends, roommates and nearly lovers. Introducing him to her well-connected but irritatingly perky friend Mary (Brittany Murphy), Serena tries to help David gain a foothold in the art scene. But wires get crossed and signals misunderstood, and when Serena thinks David has more than a friendly interest in Mary, she takes off with heroin-addicted musician Tommy (Jamie Kennedy), who’s bound for New York.
That 30-minute backstory explains the argument with David that precipitated Serena’s rapid departure from his house and the ensuing fire. What it doesn’t explain is why the kindhearted David continues to pine for her even after her bitter exit. With her mouth fixed in a perpetual pout, Serena is selfish, manipulative and irrationally possessive. Her purported chemistry with David is not visible onscreen.
Here the plot more or less dismantles. Sears spends much time depicting the disconsolate David and his pot-smoking gay friends Tony (Andy Dick) and Robert (Jeremy Sisto). An endless succession of scenes portray the trio getting high and indulging in the pseudo-profundities of a cannabis-enhanced state. Occasionally, someone gets off a good one-liner, but for the most part, those scenes are stock and predictable.
A brief diversion takes David and Mary out of the city and on a pot-retrieving expedition deep in the Oregon woods. Other than providing footage of people dancing stoned through a redwood forest, the tediously slow sequence sets up an LSD-induced hallucination of David’s mother (Patricia Wettig), which adds little.
Meanwhile, having overdosed on New York, Serena forsakes the city to return to Portland — and presumably David. But because she’s hardly evolved as a character, there’s precious little to root for in their reunion. In fact, it’s pretty hard to like anyone in this movie except for David, as Wilson gives the only sympathetic performance.
Its 98 minutes feeling more like two hours, “Bongwater” could have benefited from some liberal editing that might have picked up the pace and moved the action along.