'Freeland': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Mario Furloni
Krisha Fairchild in 'Freeland'
Beautifully etched character study, measured but scathing social critique.

In a Humboldt County-set drama starring Krisha Fairchild (of Trey Edward Shults' 'Krisha'), the booming cannabis industry leaves a boomer pot farmer on the outside looking in.

Krisha Fairchild's second lead role in a feature is no less perfect for her than the first. As in 2015's Krisha (which put the retired, little-known performer on the indie map at age 65), she inhabits the central character of Freeland with a riveting emotional power. But there isn't a false note in any of the film's performances, and within its brief running time, writer-directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean infuse this story of the changing culture and economics of pot production with an anguished depiction of generational displacement.

Favoring observation over explication, Freeland is steeped in the mood, the physical majesty and the modern history of its Northern California setting: the mists over the towering redwood forests, the relative isolation of its inhabitants, and the pioneering residents' countercultural idealism. It's no nostalgia trip, though; the film shifts expertly into the terrain of psychological thriller, and finally into a darkly fractured fairy tale, capturing the waning days of a queen (or call her a good witch, if you like) as she fights to retain her powers.

Fairchild plays Devi, a hardworking, long-thriving Humboldt County pot farmer who, as the movie opens, is harvesting what she believes is one of her best strains ever. She has a crew of three 20-somethings, each of them trying to figure out what they want to do: Casey (Cameron James Matthews), who talks about heading to Kauai, is the most chill; college student Mara (Lily Gladstone, of Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women) is even-keeled but guarded, and shares her anxieties with Devi when no one else is around; and the compellingly slippery Josh (Frank Mosley, excellent) is becoming increasingly presumptuous, offering his employer unasked-for modernization ideas and setting off a low-grade alarm with his talk of a partnership between them.

Devi has no interest in Josh's ideas. Having built her illicit pot trade over 30-plus years, she sees no reason to change her methods, even as fully automated, state-of-the-art greenhouses sprout up around her and billboards advertise legal dispensaries. But in short order she's slammed with devastating hurdles: The county cracks down on her for not having a permit and threatens to take her property, and the news scares away her biggest customer. Soon she's struggling to make payroll for her $20-an-hour crew. One of the sharpest details of the superb, lived-in production design by Alexander Irwin and Lauren Donlon is the assortment of household items — cassette tapes, seashells, picture frames — where Devi searches for suddenly much-needed stashes of cash.

Devi is understandably shaken when her cherished friend Ray (a poignant John Craven), a fellow Humboldt homesteader and unlicensed pot farmer, reveals that he's packing it all in rather than fight the county. The youthful optimism of their '70s commune days is evoked with unpretentious style and energy in a brief flashback as well as in the credits montage (some of the film's archival materials are courtesy of Stewart Brand, the counterculture firebrand and environmentalist who's the subject of another would-be SXSW premiere, We Are as Gods).

Shot on actual pot farms, with their hand-hewn buildings and flourishing plants, Freeland is attuned to the nonconformist ethos of the off-the-grid culture and its marijuana-centric rituals — harvesting, cleaning, packaging, and the communal benediction of passing the pipe or joint. Co-director Furloni's cinematography makes artful use of natural light, tapping into the sense of possibility in the landscape and also the creeping dread closing in on the protagonist.

William Ryan Fritch's nuanced score and the subtle sound design by Peter Albrechtsen work in graceful tandem as the directors slowly ratchet up the tension. The music thrums, nearby laughter hovers ominously, and Devi's mounting unease shifts into suspicion, paranoia and, at a course-changing moment, righteously unhinged fury.

Fairchild's performance is so deftly layered with ferocity and wisdom, heartache and desperation, that it suggests whole realms beyond the screenplay's understated yet trenchant dialogue. Devi's on-a-dime shifts — from charm-assault performative mode to indignant hurt, from authoritative businesswoman to panicked victim of bureaucracy — are never showy in an actorly way, and their emotional charge builds, along with that of the narrative itself.

To see Devi, a 60-something woman rooted in the Humboldt soil, wandering through a humongous cannabis business expo in San Francisco, with its gizmos and doodads and talk of capitalization, is a pitch-perfect visual shorthand for the clashes at the story's core. The (boomer) individual faces the hungry maws of industrialization. In all its beautifully rendered specificity, Devi's story contains multitudes. Freeland is a portrait of a seismic shift, here and now.

Production companies: Big Tangent presents in association with Lunacy Productions and the SFFILM Rainin Grant
Cast: Krisha Fairchild, Frank Mosley, Lily Gladstone, John Craven
Directors: Kate McLean, Mario Furloni
Screenwriters: Kate McLean, Mario Furloni
Producer: Laura Heberton
Executive producers: Mark Shlomchik, Bailey Smith, Gill Holland, Stu Pollard, Debbie Resnick, Jeff Resnick, Stefanie Zeldin Sigal, Rob Sigal, Benjamin Speiser
Director of photography: Mario Furloni
Production designers: Alexander Irwin, Lauren Donlon
Editors: Chris Donlon, Sara Newens
Music: William Ryan Fritch
Sound designer: Peter Albrechtsen
Casting directors: Samy Burch, Michelle Maxson
Sales: ICM

80 minutes