In “Free Ride,” writer-director Shana Betz’s 1970s-set feature debut, an attractive single mother of two (Anna Paquin) escapes a dangerously abusive relationship, relocating to Florida and sliding into a drug-running career. But there are no tense shootouts in this laid-back period piece, in which a criminal career involves sailing through azure waters, hosting occasional wild parties and hanging with sexy co-workers. Based on Betz’s own experiences as the younger daughter of the Paquin character, the pic waffles between professed admiration for a woman willing to risk anything for her kids and tacit disapproval of her chosen lifestyle. It’s unlikely to make waves on its TBA release through Phase 4 Films.
After barely escaping strangulation at the hands of a boyfriend while her horrified offspring look on, Christina (Paquin) packs up and heads off to Florida, where Sandy (Drea de Matteo), an old friend from her go-go dancing days, works for a marijuana importer. Starting out cleaning rich people’s houses and living in a motel, she quickly moves up in the smuggling organization.
The film opens with the voice of Shell (Ava Acres), the 7-year-old girl who will grow up to be scripter-helmer Betz, declaring that there is no such thing as a “free ride.” But, initially at least, Christina’s assimilation into the drug trade is all smooth sailing, as she rents a boat and accompanies others to pick up packets of pot from various vessels at sea, her excursions taking place in broad daylight and on balmy moonlit nights. Now installed in a spacious house with her two daughters and a horse whose barn doubles as storage for drugs, Christina apparently has it made. A romantic interest in the form of helpful, hunky teammate Ray (Cam Gigandet) seals the deal.
But danger from inside and outside the operation soon begins to surface, and domestic difficulties multiply under the stress. Shell protectively worries about her mother while 13-year old MJ (Liana Liberato), already awash in the confusions of puberty, finds her mother’s boozy, drugged-out partying simultaneously engrossing and repulsive.
Betz neatly re-creates the casual, copacetic sexuality and drug use of the ’70s with enough authenticity that when one of Christina’s female friends goes off the rails, endangering the family, it never feels like simplistic moral retribution. At the same time, the script’s autobiographical roots tend to substitute for a well-constructed dramatic throughline, giving the film an open-endedness that feels more dismissive than ambivalent.
Paquin, who also produced, conveys a breezy believability, a natural disinclination to look beyond the moment that relates more to the period than to any inherent character flaw. The Oscar-winning actress, though fully cable-exposed as Sookie Stackhouse on “True Blood,” has yet to clinch a truly attention-getting grown-up movie role, her key transition-to-adulthood lead in Kenneth Lonergan’s years-delayed “Margaret” (considered a masterpiece by a handful of film aesthetes) turning out to be more hindrance than help.