Movie Review: When Weed is Legal, “Freeland” grower goes bust

The idea of Northern California as a marijuana growing paradise imbedded itself in the culture long before “Humboldt” visited it and made it a joke over a dozen years ago.

A sea of towering trees hiding patches of the weed that turned old hippies into independent “entrepreneurs,” it’s a green Garden of Eden that gave birth to a thriving, cash-only economy.

But along came all these states that started legalizing the stuff. That took away not just the outlaw cachet of it all, but made competing damned near impossible in a Brave New World of Pot Taxes, Pot Regulation and a supply chain that had to vouch that its supply is “legally grown.”

Damned government killjoys. And by the way, generations of enthusiasts have been saying that’s exactly what would happen the moment “legalized pot” became the standard. The cartels would have to move on. Smuggling, dumping bales of “square grouper” off the coast of Florida, for instance, just doesn’t pay in an era when Tommy Chong and Willie Nelson and others have their own brand-name-bud, on sale in much of the country.

“Freeland” is a simple, intimate drama about one grower facing the end of her way of life in this Edenic part of the world. Well-acted, simply-plotted and surprisingly poignant, it could be about any way of life, any chosen profession, that becomes endangered in a heartbeat thanks to “change” some see coming and others hope to wait out.

Krisha Fairchild stars as Devi, pushing 60 and a veteran of “32 years in the business.” Still striking, with long hair that long ago turned silver, you can tell her story at a glance. She moved to Humboldt County and environs at the tale end of the “off the grid, back to the land” hippy movement. Yeah, she was in a commune, and yes it was called “Freeland.”

But like others who stuck it out, she realized the way to make a living out here where the neighbors are scarce and the law is scarcer was to plant, breed, harvest and market marijuana.

She and a few other old timers stick around, but she’s got a young workforce (Frank Mosley, Lily Gladstone and Cameron James Matthews). She pays them in cash at the end of each week, and every so often, she meets a guy (Robert Parsons) in an RV with Nebraska license plates and makes an exchange — cash for cannabis.

Like everybody else in this business, she enjoys her handiwork, and everybody’s in agreement that this “new strain” she’s come up with is one of her best. But she’s no sooner decided on a vulgar name for it than the walls close in around her and the Big Arm of the State is slapping enjoinders on her gate and fines on her business.

Others have gone legal, spent the money on permits. Devi, who doesn’t use banks, must have figured she could get to the finish line — retirement — before the roof caved in.

She’s been warned that “once they legalize there” (Nebraska) the jig would be up. But the state and the county aren’t giving her the luxury of waiting for that to happen. Her expiration date has been moved up.

“Freeland” follows her as she reminisces in between frantic efforts to get permitted, unload her current crop and hang on just long enough to get back on an even keel.

Filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni come from documentary backgrounds, so it’s not surprising that they rest their debut features film on closely-observed details and on Fairchild’s Earth Mother presence.

Devi works her crop and turns over stalks in her drying house. She trims the buds and packs the product. And then she gives it a quick blast of air freshener, before trundling if off to her small town post office.

Fairchild (she starred in “Krisha” and “American Folk”) is the personification of the strong, independent working class woman of the land, and of the Flower Child in Winter. Her Devi has her life just so, with a system she’s made work for her. And when it blows up on her, she doesn’t let her workers, neighbors or anybody else see her cry. But we do.

Furloni and McLean keep their story lean and mostly melodrama free. Past tales of violence among the weedoisie, back-stabbing and ratting each other out for a competitive edge don’t figure here. This threat is less violent, more bureaucratic.

Our heroine’s seen the signs, had ample warning. She just didn’t act.

The suspense comes from the risks we see her taking, the ways a bad situation could turn much worse if this gambler’s last throw of the dice goes awry.

Fairchild lets us see regret in this performance, and a bittersweet nostalgia for the world she first moved to, the reasons she came and the people she loved back then.

It’s not epic, not heightened drama or even all that tragic. But “Freeland” is a film many can identify with, even if you’ve never picked up a pipe or bong. It’s a universal story, a timeless tale about anybody who’s napped a little too long and woken up to realize the working world has changed and might have no place for you in it.

Rating: unrated, marijuana use, drinking, profanity

Cast: Krisha Fairchild, Frank Mosley, Lily Gladstone, John Craven, Cameron James Matthews and Robert Parsons.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Mario Furloni and Kate McLean. A Dark Star release.

Running time: 1:20

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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