The opening moments of Trey Shults’ 2015 debut “Krisha” established one of the most commanding faces in recent American cinema: The director’s aunt, Krisha Fairchild, embodied a world-weary alcoholic trainwreck through a map of withered features and sunken eyes and created a fiery portrait of rage and profound sadness. It’s hard to imagine another movie as suited to carry that commanding presence than Shults’ semi-biographical debut, but five years later, “Freeland” comes close.
Co-directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean’s scrappy character study about an aging pot farmer coming to grips with legalization was shot on actual marijuana farms and adapted from real events, though unlike “Krisha,” the non-fiction framework matters less than its centerpiece. While the filmmakers’ jittery, quasi-documentary approach outshines the flimsy story, they give Fairchild just enough material to transcend those limitations. “Freeland” builds from its humble start to a wrenching conclusion, and eventually coalesces into a poignant, understated character study about the destructive collision of nostalgia and regret — a stoner midlife-crisis drama that fully belongs to the era of legal weed, and what happens when people get screwed by it.
As Devi, Fairchild borrows some of the fragility of her “Krisha” turn, but begins in a more stable place. One of the last original residents of the titular commune in the redwood forests of Northern California, Devi’s carefree hippie routine has been dwindling for ages. She keeps up some measure of business with aid of her younger harvesters, including the good-natured Josh (Frank Mosley), while coping the imminent retirement of her old romantic partner Ray (John Craven). For much of its 80-minute running time, “Freeland” hovers in the confines of this tight-knit community on the verge of fading out.
From the tranquil home-movie footage of bygone days in the opening credits, “Freeland” makes it clear that Devi’s self-contained paradise looks much like a lot of boomer utopias that came crashing down as the years passed by. Hers has just taken much longer to unravel, thanks to a lifestyle kept in check by the supply-and-demand of her crop, and abrupt existential challenge that only comes along once California decides to legalize weed.
“Freeland” opens in the midst of that conflict, even as Devi works overtime to block it out. Her initial deal with a truck driver, captured in the midst of an empty landscape, epitomizes the shrinking scale of her customer base, while the city has started cracking down on her illegal operation. As she comes to grips with her limited options, “Freeland” sags into a series of wistful conversations and soulful asides, but even during its meandering middle section it’s clear that Devi’s halcyon days are behind her. Guided by William Ryan Fritch’s pensive score and often awe-inspiring natural scenery, “Freeland” settles into a melancholic rhythm that hums along until a series of complications toss Devi into a more isolated position.
Though it takes a peculiar turn into thriller territory in its third act, the movie gains propulsion as it moves along, aided by Devi’s stone-faced determination to survive changing circumstances on her own terms. The movie shares some of the fixations of the 2008 pot farmer dramedy “Humboldt County” and the ever-mutating brilliance of HBO’s “High Maintenance” (and Devi’s story could be inserted into the latter’s expanded universe with few modifications). Viewed on its own terms, “Freeland” seems more confident when establishing Devi’s situation than finding new ways to develop it. After an intriguing visit to a cannabis convention, the story recedes into its modest setting when a stranger begins texting Devi and sends her careening into a paranoid meltdown. From there, the movie rushes into a shrill eruption of histrionics that threatens to undermine the simmering tension that lead to it.
Fortunately, just when the directors start to lose the control of the material, “Freeland” returns to its greatest asset — Fairchild’s face — as the actress singlehandedly takes the story to a whole new emotional plane. Devi’s at once riddled with devastation and compelled by an inexpressible power to soldier on, but her journey matters less than the way she processes its eventual destination. “Freeland” almost collapses into itself until those blistering final moments when its troubled woman looks out at the world and, without saying a word, conveys some measure of peace with it.
“Freeland” was part of the Visions section at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.