What an odd, satisfying little film Humboldt County is. Written and directed by first-time filmmakers Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs (who appear in small roles), it sounds like a weird hybrid of Garden State and Homegrown, but Grodsky and Jacobs inhabit the film with such sure tone and purpose that it carves out a niche of its own.
Jeremy Strong stars as Peter Hadley, a quiet, withdrawn med school student who has never quite squirmed out from under the thumb of his father (Peter Bogdanovich). His dad is also his current professor--and is threatening to fail him, blocking a valuable residency. On a lark, he goes to a nightclub performance by Bogart (Fairuza Balk), a girl he barely knows; they have an odd sexual encounter and he somehow ends up in her car, taking a long road trip to her family's farm upstate. They grow pot.
Bogart disappears as quickly as she came, leaving Peter stranded and way out of his comfort zone. But as he continues to miss the bus back home, he finds himself strangely liberated by this family so different from his own; he grows attached to parental figures Jack (Brad Dourif) and Rosie (Frances Conroy), son Max (Chris Messina), and Max's charming young daughter, Charity (Madison Davenport).
Humboldt County sometimes strays off-path, but it is a consistently satisfying and fascinating picture, filled with strong performances and little details that feel just right, from the décor of the homes to the protocol of the busts ("going to the beach" is a big moment for these farmers) to Bogart's nightclub act, which (unlike those of most films) actually looks like a show you'd want to go to.
Contrary to the box art, Balk actually appears in a very brief (but key) role, but this is one of her most charming performances; she's as strange as ever, but absolutely disarming, and their marvelous hotel room scene is like a perfect little short film of its own. The film's sturdy cast of character actors each get a chance to shine (though Conroy's feels rather shoe-horned in); they all feel like real people rather than the mere types they could have been.
Messina gives a natural, lived-in performance as Max, who is fairly ambitious (as pot farmers go, anyway); he's slightly obnoxious and utterly charming all at once. Davenport is something of a revelation--this is one terrific child performance, believable and not even a little precocious. Strong turns in the film's trickiest turn in the leading role; it's such an understated performance that, through much of the film, he doesn't seem to be doing much of anything (even his reactions barely register on occasion). But it's a gamble that pays off in the third act.
Ernest Holzman's lovely cinematography contributes to the film's sure sense of time and place; his camerawork is simultaneously studied and off-the-cuff, lending an early 70s Rafelson vibe to the proceedings. Humboldt County rambles a bit, and its attitudes about marijuana are probably a bit pat, but it has moments that are deeply affecting and quite memorable.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is a tad on the grainy side, but it feels as much like an artistic decision as a budgetary one, contributing to the stripped-down (and slightly aged) aesthetic. The occasional beauty shots are quite nice, and the transfer is more than satisfactory overall, particularly for a low-budget festival film.
The 5.1 mix is a pretty low-key affair--in tone with the film, to be sure--but it does boast some fine use of environmental sounds during the picture's many scenes in the great outdoors. It's a nicely immersive use of the surround channels. A 2.0 stereo mix is also offered.
Magnolia Home Entertainment has assembled a smattering of slightly underwhelming bonus features for inclusion here. First is "A Little Hazy: Humboldt County Revisited" (6:57), a promotional featurette hosted by the filmmakers. This one is, frankly, a bit of a missed opportunity; Grodsky and Jacobs are trying way too hard to be clever, and it doesn't pan out.
"Behind The Scenes" (11:33) is a more conventional EPK-style featurette. This one sheds a bit of light on the filming, though it is distractingly low-fi; the interviews are shot on cheap video with very poor sound, and the directors are again more concerned with getting cheap laughs than shedding any light on the process.
Deleted Scenes (7:38 total) are presented in non-anamorphic letterboxed format as one long clip with no individual scene selections available. More than half of the running time is spent on an extended jail sequence cut from very early in the film; it's a pretty good scene, presumably (and probably wisely) trimmed for pacing rather than quality. The remaining snippets are quite brief and mostly negligible.
Humboldt County has a handful of obvious influences, but writer/directors Grodsky and Jacobs go their own way, crafting a heartfelt and quietly effective drama. It certainly isn't for all tastes, but it's a rare, unique film that didn't deserve to get lost in the low-budget indie shuffle. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.