The late-blooming actress Krisha Fairchild anchors Freeland, a wispy slice-of-life movie that never really gets going, despite its timely subject matter and Fairchild’s compelling lead performance. Set in Humboldt County, California, Freeland focuses on a marijuana farmer, Devi, whose business has been adversely affected by the legalization of pot in California. Her under-the-radar business is suddenly getting a lot of competition, and she hasn’t obtained a permit to sell her product legally, because of fees and bureaucratic red tape. At the beginning of the film, Devi has some hope that she’ll be able to keep afloat with out-of-state sales, but when one of her biggest clients bails, she realizes she’s going to be stuck with a lot of unsold product. She asks her small staff of three to work unpaid during the harvest period, promising a bigger payout later. They reluctantly agree and the tension between Devi and her increasingly disgruntled workers is what drives the story.
The best thing about Freeland is its sense of place. Shot on location in northern California during an actual marijuana harvest, addiction, directors Mario Fuloni and Kate McLean take you to Devi’s off-the-grid homestead where she grows her prized strain of cannabis. Her twenty-something workers live on-site in airstream trailers, while Devi lives in a cozy cabin where she hosts dinners after a long work day. I enjoyed the dynamic between Devi and her younger workers, but I wish there had been detail about the actual farming work; we mostly see Devi and her crew gathering before and after a day’s work. I was also confused about Devi’s legal troubles. We see her meeting with her small-town lawyer, who advises her to stop selling on the black market until her operation is legal. It’s sound advice, but Devi ignores it because she wants to bring in the harvest. I was never really sure why Devi was so opposed to going through the permitting process, beyond the fact that she is a free spirit who has never bothered with paperwork, or even banks. To pay her legal fees, she digs up a jar of money she buried near a particular tree. The film also alludes to her younger years, when she lived on a commune in what seems to be a utopian community. But there is a vagueness to the screenplay that leaves too much unexplained. When events come to a boil in the final act, it feels forced and simplistic.
Fairchild holds the story together, playing Devi as an aging dreamer who is reluctant to give up her freedom. With her leonine silvered hair and imposing demeanor, she’s an interesting mix of earth mother and savvy businesswoman. Devi can look like a sweet Grandma (and, hilariously, she dons a Grandma outfit to make an illegal mailing) or a weary, aging hippie. There’s something a little bit dangerous about her, too — an aspect of her screen presence that her nephew Trey Edward Shults harnessed when he cast her to star in his 2015 debut feature, Krisha. That movie was a study of a woman struggling with a drug addiction, and Shults shot it like a horror film, infusing every scene with dread and tension. Fuloni and McLean sometimes seem to be attempting something similar in Freeland, with ominous music that suggests a hidden volatility, but that tone seemed at odds with the film’s interest in workplace dynamics and lost utopias.