“If you’re going to do wrong, make sure you do it right.” This is what counts for brotherly wisdom in “Green / is / Gold,” a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old who’s introduced to the family weed business, but it’s one of the film’s many small virtues that it takes such a cavalier line seriously. Set in the hills of Northern California, where marijuana growers can thrive in isolation, Ryon Baxter’s winning debut feature follows two brothers living on the fringes — of society, of the law, and of a future that’s by no means certain for either of them. That Baxter and his own younger sibling, Jimmy, play the lead roles adds to the authentic, lived-in quality that sets the film apart. Winner of the Audience Award at the L.A. Film Festival, the film should harvest interest from micro-indie distributors and serve as a calling card for a promising new director.
Though his premise seems geared toward a scolding moral drama, Baxter — a quintuple threat as writer, director, producer, editor and star — weighs the narrow options allotted to his underclass characters and considers them in a generous light. By any reasonable measure, Cameron (Ryon Baxter) isn’t fit to take care of his 13-year-old brother Mason (Jimmy Baxter): His home is a dilapidated trash-heap, his business risks sending him to jail alongside their father, and his temperament is boyish and immature. When a concerned teacher (Shelly Mitchell) summons Cameron over the Ds and Fs on Mason’s report card, the older brother winds up getting most of the scolding. A dropout himself, Cameron thinks education is a corporate-fueled disinformation campaign and Mason is better off without it anyway.
Though Cameron feints at keeping his brother away from his business and his stash, it isn’t long before Mason is learning the finer points of fertilization and ventilation and smoking a little on the sly. A night with Cameron’s libertine girlfriend (Liz Clare) serves as its own crash course in sex ed, but the film keeps coming back to the business, which will live or die on a deal to sell Cameron’s entire “sour diesel” crop for $150,000. Cameron is careful not to make the same mistakes that got his former partner pinched in Texas, but there’s only so much risk that can be avoided when dealing with shady characters.
Riding shotgun to the big city, Mason is both captive and business partner, tethered to a destiny he’s too young to choose for himself. But Baxter isn’t judgmental about the life Cameron is introducing to his younger brother, in part because the only other option is destitution, which would land Mason back in the system. “Green / is / Gold” is scaled-down nearly to a fault, with ambitions no grander than tracking the ups and downs of a relationship that teeters on the precipice. Yet Baxter packs the film with sound insights on masculinity and young adulthood, as well as the hand-to-mouth realities of black-market farming.
“Green / is / Gold” leads to an agonizingly tense sequence where the brothers meet their skittish buyers, but even then, Baxter subtly defies expectations of where drug films usually go. His commitment to understanding these siblings and their tenuous entrepreneurial venture supersedes the type of violent payoffs that usually go along with films about the business. Mason isn’t in the best situation an orphaned 13-year-old could be. He’s not in the worst situation, either. “Green / is / Gold” carefully illuminates the space in between.