|INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review)|
Eureka and Humboldt County
by Pamela F. Service, Raymond W. Hillman
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
I probably first saw her in "Valmont" when she was fifteen, then again the next year in "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Whatever my first sightings were, she made the kind of impression that causes a movie fan to follow a career. This was an exotically sexy girl, now woman in her thirties--and this was a rare chance to see her in her maturity after not seeing her again since "Personal Velocity" in 2002. So, it was the appearance of Fairuza Balk that brought me back to the woody pines and rock strewn beaches of Humboldt County, some of the most dramatically beautiful real estate on any continent and the backdrop for this family character drama.
Humboldt County is a geographical slice of heaven that contains state parks, a forest reserve, a national wildlife refuge, a national conservation area, recreation areas, tree-hugger standoffs with lumber companies and the giant Sequoia trees that they're trying to save. It's also the setting for many a marijuana farm, tucked away from view and growing in the patches of sunlight that penetrate the piney woods as the sun moves. Interestingly, Ms Balk hails from nearby, the gem of the California coastline, Point Reyes.
Which has nothing to do with the story itself from which, to my consternation, Balk disappears early on. Call her role as singer/wild child Bogart functionally transitional. Co-writer/directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs's scenario is really about the further adventures of a nerd abruptly placed in the bosom of the latter-day hippie culture.
As a medical student, Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong) fails a test to diagnose and properly treat a volunteer "patient," Bogart (Balk). When the uninhibited sex-centered fox completes the description of her "symptoms" Peter stands mute, in a near-catatonic state, prodded by the volunteer to say something. He comes up with a prescription... a very bad one. He now faces a failing grade from the tester, his professor father (Peter Bogdanovich). Dad's cherished dream to send his son to medical residency has collapsed with his boy's ineptitude.
Herein lies the film's problem, convincing us that the sexy volunteer, who by night is a vixenish nightclub singer, would see anything at all attractive in this speechless geek in a white medical gown, but she does (she likes unchallenging guys?). That night, after she performs a song at her nightclub gig with coy and captivating allure, they have a romp in the hay, and she takes him on a drive to see the family up in Humboldt. Soon thereafter, after the family reunion, a communal dinner and strained words with her paramour Max (brooding Chris Messina, "Vicki Cristina Barcelona") (her cousin?), and sleep, she proceeds to take off, leaving Peter behind with the strangest group of people he's ever encountered.
So, here we have this cultural alien in the back woods of marijuana country trying to get to the bus station for a return to dad and the career path that's been mapped out for him. Max, however, in the style of a pothead farmer of weed, has another idea. He fails to remember the guest's need for a drive into town. And, besides, he needs a helper he can trust. This frustrates Peter no end until, the next day, he fails to get his drive again. Before he realizes it, he's finding more connection here than he knows awaits him back home where he's so undervalued.
The coming-of-age transition is provided by the generosity and undemanding nature of the family: patriarchal ex-hippie Jack (Brad Dourif), his wife and Earth Mother Rosie (Frances Conroy) and tyke Charity (Madison Davenport), eleven, Max's kid whom everyone adores, including Peter. In the welcoming bosom of this off-beat group of individualists, our nerdly hero finds himself as one, himself--a full-fledged person who can manage without his father's coattails.
For us, it becomes an endearing journey, even with the shock of Bogart's sudden departure from the scene and the movie's change of pace. Interestingly, character Peter's growth may mirror actor Strong's own finding of his acting feet in a debut role, emerging here from a career as a personal or production assistant on major film projects.
Dourif ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) uses his maturity to present us with a man of years and wisdom, a nicely understated image of a back woods patriarch. With his grey-bearded appearance and laid-back incisiveness, he commands the screen and fills the part with laissez faire nobility--certainly designed to strike a dissonant contrast with Bogdanovich's materially dominating father. Davenport, as the child-sage, carries it off adorably.
Balk again teases us with her sensuous and way-too-brief presence. If understatement leaves you wanting more, her role here is just such a case. Of course, if she had been woven into the main body of the story, it would have been an entirely different movie. Consequently, Messina is a male lead deprived of a chance to play opposite a corresponding female. His dramatic and emotive hands are tied as a consequence, but his screen presence holds up against the limitation of the situation. Here's an actor with serious potential.
The subject and setting here partially answers the question, "where did all the hippies go? In the aftermath of the late sixties-early 70's, it was the coastal environs of Northern California that received them, from L.A., San Francisco, big and small cities throughout the land... and, parts unknown. There, they created a haven of escape from the body politic and brought regular raiding parties from the DEA in helicopters and on foot to elevate the tension level and create tragedies.
"Humboldt County" recalls the Beat Generation for those who experienced it, and Generation X that followed it, capturing the taste and spirit of one of their major characteristics: acceptance. The film brings us to a place (via unpredictable Bogart) where being a stranger and a guest is more a fullfilment than a problem. If you're here, you're in the bosom of friends who'll feed and shelter you and expect nothing in return except your trust and camaraderie. And you'll possibly learn things about yourself you never expected. Ex-med student Peter certainly did.
Final word: stay for the end credits. You'll kick yourself if you don't.
~~ Jules Brenner