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Nearly 50 years after the first attempt to legalize marijuana via ballot measure in California, voters finally succeeded in overturning the Golden State’s prohibition on recreational pot in 2016. Proposition 64 was a boon for many, like the tax collectors who could expect to fill their coffers after the ballot initiative’s passage and the Black and brown communities that have long seen their members disproportionately impacted by drug enforcement. But the law was also a death knell for most of the state’s small pot farms, which didn’t stand a chance when agribusiness became empowered to take over the cannabis industry.
In Lady Buds, first-time feature director Chris J. Russo captures the before and after of Prop 64 through the experiences of six Californian women in the marijuana industry. Each has a personal connection to cannabis, like “Bud Sisters” Pearl Moon and Joyce Centofani, who met in a college ceramics class 40 years ago and sell a hemp-based pain-relief salve that has helped countless customers, and activist Felicia Carbajal, who witnessed firsthand the crucial role that medical marijuana played in providing succor to AIDS patients in ‘90s San Francisco.
The one who can most clearly see the economic wreckage to come — the documentary’s Cassandra — is Karyn Wagner, a former restaurateur who relocated from New York City to Humboldt County and eventually inherited a farm from an ex-boyfriend. If the county won’t take a more active role in keeping afloat businesses like hers, she warns — they could start by doing away with seemingly outdated and unnecessary regulations — the region will be left with empty storefronts and mass unemployment.
Premiering at this year’s (virtual) Hot Docs, Lady Buds is the kind of film whose raison d’être isn’t immediately obvious, but whose storytelling is engaging enough that we’re ready for wherever the journey takes us. Notably, there isn’t much (if any) gendered analysis of the cannabis field. Russo’s lens is economically populist, but that description belies her humane curiosity about the costs of marijuana legalization to a group that’s shouldered the risks of working in the industry before 2016, sometimes for decades. Second-generation weed farmer Chiah Rodriques, who lives and works in Mendocino County (just south of Humboldt), recalls hiding as a child when police helicopters would make their rounds flying over her hippie commune’s planting fields. The Bud Sisters, too, hoped that they’d never be sent to prison, but had long ago made peace with the possibility.
These women’s relationships to cannabis are particularly compelling, and Lady Buds boasts a genuine twist early on in a legislative reversal that abruptly speeds up the impending monopoly by big business. Wagner’s try-anything-and-everything approach in the face of the inevitable onslaught renders her the film’s most dynamic “character,” but the paralysis and helplessness of some of the other women are terribly sympathetic, too. The cannabis equity movement is embodied by Carbajal, whose turbulent life certainly holds more stories than we’re privy to here and whose relatively novel messaging I wish we’d heard more of.
For a doc whose budget doesn’t seem to have been stratospheric, Lady Buds is ambitious in scope, crisscrossing the state and following its subjects for what seems to be several years. Russo develops a real sense of place and community with her Northern Californian locales, which eventually makes those towns’ betrayals of her subjects even more heartbreaking. If you’re still cooped up by the quarantine (like I am), the film’s sun-dappled farms and small-town closeness are their own salves. Russo’s flattering naturalism and carefully considered compositions make up for the somewhat droopy middle section.
There’s no getting around the fact that Lady Buds is mostly a downer, though it’s as much a story about survival as it is about the trampling of the underdogs. Russo does offer a bittersweet tonic through the story of Sue Taylor, a Berkeley septuagenarian who’s poured her retirement savings into realizing a 12-year dream of opening up a dispensary aimed at providing relief to the elderly. Like several of the women in the film, Taylor is hampered and worn down by the demands of municipal bureaucracy, which include lots and lots of money she just doesn’t have. Taylor eventually does open up her shop, becoming the first Black woman to own a dispensary in the college town — and providing the film’s happiest ending. But even then, her triumph quickly proves tenuous, ultimately dependent on the support of a community she’s spent years building, which came through for her but couldn’t for too many others.
Venue: Hot Docs
Production companies: Paceline Pictures
Director: Chris J. Russo
Producers: Michael J. Katz, Christian Bruno
Executive producer: Shauna Harden
Director of photography: Christian Bruno
Editors: Tamara Maloney, J. Davis
Composer: Abby Posner
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