There's a distinctly '70s vibe to "Humboldt County," an amiably paced, character-driven comedy-drama about a disenchanted student who finds himself among the unreconstructed hippies and second-generation fringe dwellers who farm marijuana in the Lost Coast region of Northern California.

There’s a distinctly ’70s vibe to “Humboldt County,” an amiably paced, character-driven comedy-drama about a disenchanted student who finds himself among the unreconstructed hippies and second-generation fringe dwellers who farm marijuana in the Lost Coast region of Northern California. Pic may be too easygoing and unassuming to generate the critical raves or impassioned word of mouth needed for a theatrical breakthrough. But its low-key charms are considerable enough to engage venturesome ticketbuyers and homevid viewers willing to take the time and go with the flow.

After receiving a failing grade from a demanding professor (Peter Bogdanovich) who just happens to be his father, UCLA medical student Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong) drowns his sorrows in a jazz club, where he catches the eye of a sultry singer named Bogart (Fairuza Balk).

One thing leads to another, and Peter awakens far away in the Humboldt County community where Bogart is, at best, an occasional resident. She takes off, but he remains, reluctantly, the houseguest of a family headed by Jack (Brad Dourif), a physics professor who dropped out of academia decades earlier for a counterculture life of raising and smoking pot.

Along with Rosie (Frances Conroy), his Earth Motherly wife, Jack dotes on his precocious granddaughter Charity (Madison Davenport), while Max (Chris Messina), the girl’s mercurial father, tends to the “family business.” Max greets Peter with a hectoring sarcasm (“Are we enjoying our summer here among the lotus-eaters?”) that suggests he isn’t the first stray Bogart has brought home, then abandoned.

“Humboldt County” occasionally recalls “Five Easy Pieces” and the lesser-known, underrated “Adam at 6 A.M.” (also released in 1970) in its sharply observed, subtly detailed depiction of the cultural clash that results when an educated outsider immerses himself in a different socioeconomic milieu.

Younger auds accustomed to seeing potheads played for big laughs may be pleasantly surprised by the respectful affection with which the filmmakers portray Jack and his extended clan — eccentric but intelligent folks who adhere to their own values while living off the grid. At the same time, pic doesn’t shy away from showing how the offspring of the resettled hippies are taking bigger risks for bigger profits.

Strong’s performance is a tad too internalized for Peter’s moral dilemmas to fuel truly compelling drama. But the actor does a first-rate job of reacting in scenes with standout supporting players Conroy, Davenport and especially Dourif. (Presence of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” co-star, along with “The Last Picture Show” director Bogdanovich, cannot help but enhance the ’70s flavor.) Up-and-comer Messina evidences a strong screen presence, even though he’s slightly undermined by his character’s predictable arc.

Ernest Holtzman’s lush color lensing of the Northern California locations makes it all the more credible that Peter might be tempted to delay his departure from this Eden in the redwoods.

Humboldt County

Production

An Embark Prods. production. Produced by Jason Weiss. Executive producer, Todd Senturia. Directed, written by Darren Grodsky, Danny Jacobs.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Ernest Holtzman; editor, Ed Marx; music, iZler; music supervisor, Peymon Maskan; production designer, Freddy Naff; set designer, Noel Naff; costume designer, Amy Brownson; sound (Dolby Digital), Brandon Barnts; assistant director, Lynnette M. Myers; casting, John Jackson. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Emerging Visions), March 11, 2008. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Jeremy Strong, Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich, Brad Dourif, Frances Conroy, Madison Davenport, Chris Messina.
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