The following is a review I wrote recently about the film, Humboldt County. This review appeared in the McKinleyville Press last week.
If you haven’t seen Humboldt County, there’s still time. After the success of the film’s first week, theaters throughout Northern California and Oregon are holding it over for one more week, including Arcata’s Minor Theatre and Eureka’s Broadway Cinema. Last week, Humboldt County took the award for best narrative feature at the Idaho International Film Festival.
It seems almost too obvious to state, but Humboldt County is a story of place. Granted there is a drama playing out against its lush and quirky backdrop and many interesting characters to enjoy, but the place itself steals the show.
On the surface, Humboldt County is a story about a mediocre young man whose family’s expectations threaten to crush him. Yet instead of becoming a failure in mainstream society, he stumbles Mr. Magoo-like into an eccentric subculture that awakens his emotional self as it shows him there are other ways of viewing the world.
But what it’s really about, and as a local you’ll recognize this instantly, is the fragility of utopias when subjected to time, newcomers and tragedy. In fact, Humboldt County holds dozens of insights just waiting to be teased out by local sensibilities, more than the momentary pleasure of recognizing Confusion Hill, the bullet-hole-ridden mileage sign to Shelter Cove, or the impenetrable blackness of nighttime in the hills. More than knowing exactly what it means that “the gennie’s down.”
For instance, you would see the drama of clashing ideologies between the generations in the marijuana-growing industry. On the one hand, there are the aging back-to-landers who quietly grow only what they need to live simply and off the grid. On the other hand, there are the newer generations who grow steadily more avaricious and profit-driven, more militantly protective of their crops and careless of pollution, and whose high-profile activities bring the wrath of the federal government down on the entire area.
As a returning Humboldt resident, and a mother of two Humboldt natives myself, I found this quote particularly poignant: “A child of Humboldt either can’t leave or can’t stay.” This line is uttered by the film’s pivotal character, Max, a young grower who calls the area “a beautiful trap.”
The area in question is a fictionalized collage of Southern Humboldt, which the film refers to as the Lost Coast. An outsider might get the impression that on the Lost Coast, one may find a bustling Main Street, an atmospheric frontier general store, a diner, a bus stop and a seedy bar. In reality, a visitor expecting that much infrastructure on the Lost Coast would be disappointed.
In fact, little of the filming took place in Southern Humboldt at all. Rather, it is Blue Lake’s Logger Bar and Trinidad’s gorgeous windswept ocean vistas that appear in this film. According to the credits, our very own McKinleyville was also among the filming locations.
Marijuana is central to the plot, not just the smoking of it, but also the artisanship of growing it, the economic structure around it, and the effects of its illegality on daily life. Characters tell us it is “just a plant” or “just a flower.” They point out that the sugar and TV of mainstream society are equally drug-like.
But the filmmakers do not gloss over the lack of security in people’s lives or the messiness of living off the grid and out of touch with the world at large. The film lets us make up our own minds about the characters and their way of life, even as it reminds us that, again in the words of Max, “You can’t live your entire life by the books, can you?”
Humboldt County transcended my expectations. I anticipated another marijuana-glorifying frat-boy odyssey in the tradition of Up in Smoke or Slackers. There were indeed some smoke-filled moments, complete with nonsensical laughter, accidentally discharging firearms, feral children and Wal-mart conspiracy theories. But what I saw overall was a class-act, a beautifully produced film, well written, well casted and well acted.