- Written and directed by Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Movies that start as broad comedies and turn serious seldom work. The transition is tricky, especially if you don’t layer in enough reality between the big laughs before the drama begins.
Yet first-time writers/directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs pull it off beautifully in Humboldt County. They start their film as a hysterically funny fish-out-of-water comedy, where both the fish and the other-than-water he lands in are absurd and familiar stereotypes. But as the movie progresses, they let a little humanity work its way in. The laughs slowly get farther apart, but we don’t mind because we’re involved with real people living in an but real and fascinating subculture.
The fish is a hopelessly awkward med student named Peter (Jeremy Strong). Raised by an extremely dominating, workaholic father (Peter Bogdanovich in a rare appearance in someone else’s film), this kid has so little self-confidence that when a woman makes a pass at him, he assumes she’s a prostitute. It’s that woman (Bogart, played by Fairuza Balk), who pulls him out of his dad-controlled life and drops him into the world of northern California backwoods Marijuana farming.
He’s not amused. But we are.
The family she brings him to is a decidedly odd bunch. Ruled (if that word applies) by a gray ponytailed patriarch (Brad Dourif), they’re a warm, loving, and almost constantly stoned bunch. Even the too-young-to-smoke granddaughter (Madison Davenport) rolls expert joints for grandma and grandpa. But the paranoia of their illegal cash crop, and perhaps that crop’s effect on their brains, has taken it’s toll. These people aren’t as carefree and happy as they first seem.
Of course Peter loosens up and learns to relax in this strange environment–anyone who’s ever seen a movie can see that coming. But not in the way those other movies might lead you to suspect. He develops an interesting moral strength, and while he learns to love these people, he sees them clearer than they see themselves.
Speaking of love, Grodsky and Jacobs wisely get Bogart out of the way quickly. Rather than concentrating on romantic love, they focus on Peter’s growing-but-difficult friendship with another man his age (Chris Messina), one who’s taking the big risk of growing too many plants.
Humboldt County pays loving tribute to an unusual lifestyle, but manages to be clear-eyed and critical, as well. That’s as difficult as being funny and dramatic.