Humboldt County

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Opened: Oct. 3 (Magnolia Pictures)

The so-called Lost Coast of Northern California is a rich setting for a film: idyllic redwood forests, off-the-grid counterculturalists and a thriving, if threatened-by-feds, black market in grade-A marijuana. With a strong sense of place and deep affection for its characters, “Humboldt County” aims to pay homage to the slow-burning, nonconformist vibe of '70s films like “Five Easy Pieces.” But despite a few well-crafted scenes, this feature debut is more a contrived and overwrought melodrama than the tale of life-changing awakening it aspires to be.

The Magnolia Pictures release likely will makes its strongest connection in university towns, while other audiences might end up feeling like the main character for much of the story, i.e., the only person in the room who isn't high.

Writers-directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs fashion an all-too-predictable story around medical student Peter (Jeremy Strong), who has been set on a straight-and-narrow career path by his humorless physician/professor father (Peter Bogdanovich).

“We worked so hard for this,” Dad says reproachfully after failing Peter on a crucial exam. That exam opens the film in terrifically disorienting fashion. From there, things devolve into annoying quirkiness as a one-night stand with retro-hip chanteuse Bogart Truman (Fairuza Balk) turns into a long drive from Los Angeles to the northern reaches of the state.

Bogart skedaddles to be the free spirit she is while Peter is drawn into her adoptive family: pot farmer and former academic Jack (Brad Dourif); his wife, Rose (Frances Conroy); their young granddaughter (Madison Davenport); and her father (Chris Messina).

Peter's initial resistance to the communal, reefer-redolent atmosphere is as transparent as the thrust of the storyline: Uptight young guy lands in enchanted -- and endangered -- forest to find his bliss.

The filmmakers and actors, Dourif and Conroy especially, understand the Humboldt residents. But Strong's protagonist is so recessive and out of touch, he's absurd, and his ostensible transformation is a weak motor for the story. Amid a pile-up of emotional crescendos (one of which is handled particularly well, almost wordlessly), the most compelling character reappears briefly -- and Bogdanovich's dour countenance provides welcome reprieve.

An Embark Prods. presentation
Cast: Jeremy Strong, Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich, Frances Conroy, Brad Dourif, Chris Messina, Madison Davenport.
Writer-directors: Darren Grodsky, Danny Jacobs.
Executive producer: Todd Senturia.
Producer: Jason Weiss.
Director of photography: Ernest Holzman.
Production designer: Freddy Naff.
Music: iZLER.
Costume designer: Amy Brownson.
Editor: Ed Marx.
Rated R, 98 minutes.

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