The classic nutshell version of the Turbulent Sixties becoming the Me Decade 1970s is that idealism curdled into hedonism. For some, that was more a fork in the road than a one-way, and the two starring roles Krisha Fairchild has had in indie dramas illustrate alternative generational paths.
Playing the eponymous (but fictive) protagonist in real-life nephew Trey Edward Shults’ auspicious debut feature “Krisha” five years ago, she was a casualty: a woman who clearly stayed at the counterculture party too long, burned too many bridges, and now finds no one trusts her or her fragile sobriety. In the new “Freeland,” which was scheduled to premiere at SXSW, Fairchild plays another figure reaching a retirement age that the life she’s lived has ill-prepared her for. But in this case, Devi is a survivor who kept her ideals burning all these years, even if now she’s the only torch-bearer left.
Set in a rural Northern California where the illicit longtime pot industry has suddenly become a big-stakes legal one, this debut feature from the writing-directing duo of Mario Furloni and Kate McLean is a very modest character study about a woman whose self-contained idyll is about to be crushed by market capitalism. A first narrative effort from documentarians, “Freeland” ultimately comes up a bit short in the script department. But the nonverbal observations of place and personality that might be incidental in a more plot-driven endeavor nearly sustain this artfully crafted miniature, with Fairchild somehow conveying all the backstory her screenplay just hints at. Like other recent films about ebbing-out hippie utopianism such as “Captain Fantastic,” it seems destined to appeal to a discerning small audience tilted toward aging boomers.
A couple hundred miles north of San Francisco in Humboldt County, Fairchild’s pushing-70 Devi has been “living off the land” since that was actually fashionable — under opening credits we get grainy flashes of a long-haired communal lifestyle in days gone by. But that was a long time ago. These days, she lives alone in a handmade hilltop cabin, cultivating her customized cannabis crops. She also has much-younger employees, currently Josh (Frank Mosley), Mara (Lily Gladstone) and Casey (Cameron Matthews). However, they’re only here for the season, staying in nearby trailers kept for their transient needs; Devi’s life is primarily a solitary one.
But the tranquility it gives her is threatened by marijuana legalization, which rather than helping may actually destroy her business. She’s already threatened with fines or worse for noncompliance with new laws, necessitating application for expensive permits she may not get. Devi’s customary buyers are jumping ship, scared off by the heightened crackdown on illegal weed now that it can be legally bought. And deeper-pocketed operations are going corporate in a big way, crowding out smaller growers just as factory-scaled livestock and produce farms have nearly killed off their traditional mom-and-pop rivals.
“Freeland” doesn’t spell out exactly how Devi got here, but we realize the closest peer friend she has left is fellow grower Ray (John Craven), who was also once part of a communal-living experiment not far from their current homes. But unable to cope with the new demands to “modernize” (and monetize), he’s announced, “I’m pulling up all my plants. I’m done.” Before he leaves the area for good, they drive to the now-abandoned site of their lives’ happiest period, finding on a wall an old collective mission statement breathtaking in its innocent optimism.
That’s a powerful emotional climax that fulfills “Freeland” as a character portrait. Even without a few more of those fleeting, wordless flashbacks, we can imagine what these people once had, and lost. But the sketchy screenplay goes on to poke at some seeds of intrigue that finally end the film in a hasty rush of betrayal, abandonment and catharsis. None of which has sufficient impact, because the narrative and subsidiary-character elements they depend on have been so underdeveloped.
It’s a disappointing windup to a film that would have seemed more complete if it had avoided melodrama entirely, rather than half-heartedly throwing some into the last reel. Still, Fairchild holds it together, making Devi a rich, complicated and relatable character despite scant dialogue or explicit backstory. Supporting performances are also strong, albeit partly hobbled by the script’s lack of follow-through.
Where “Freeland” is an unadulterated success is in capturing the physical, psychological and spiritual space Devi inhabits. From its first moments, the movie makes evocative use of the gorgeous Humboldt scenery, as shot by DP Furloni. William Ryan Fritch’s ethereal score, the knowingly detailed production design (Alex Irwin, Laura Donlon) and leisurely yet concise editing by Chris Donlon and Sara Newens also invaluably contribute to a tale that feels texturally just right even when its story content falls short.