More than a stoner comedy: Humboldt County (Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, 2008)

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Humboldt Country is more or less a Garden State for the US’s West Coast, but although describing it in this way emphasises the fact that Zach Braff went nowhere near it, which is certainly a plus, it also does it something of a disservice. This film is unassuming and does not demand attention or appreciation, and yet is remarkably endearing in the way it simply does not feel the need to try too hard. It’s about Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong), an emotionally destitute medical student whose life is reinvigorated when he becomes involved with the free-spirited Bogart (Fairuza Balk) and her pot-growing family, residents of Humboldt County.

This film is a little comedic, a little beautiful, and a little quirky, and becomes slowly but surely ever more immersive as its story progresses. It is greatly helped by a cast full of strong actors who fill their roles solidly and believably, avoiding the superficial wackiness of their characters. The prime example is Brad Dourif as Jack, Bogart’s adoptive father, in perhaps the best of his post-Deadwood roles. (The fact that there’s little competition is some kind of crime against art.) For a change, he’s playing an outright lovable character. Jack is an eccentric, and Dourif makes him at turns intimidating and supportive. The character seems so sure of himself and his place in the world that his concealed self-doubt, and his eventual heartbreak, hit all the harder.

The other parts are just as well cast. Strong makes his film debut here, bringing just the right amount of blankness and confusion to Peter. Balk seems to effortlessly fill Bogart with vitality, and Chris Messina constantly shows the internal conflicts bubbling away within his character, Max, that will eventually come to a boil. Twelve-year-old Madison Devenport as Charity is a fine child actress, capturing the character’s precociousness without losing her innocent qualities, while the more experienced Frances Conroy as Rosie shifts from airy indifference to confused turmoil and back again with ease. Peter Bogdanovich is an odd casting choice as Professor Hadley, Peter’s father, but works as a reasonable though distant authority figure.

Humboldt County gradually reveals the complex relationships of Bogart’s family, and in doing so, refutes the film’s seeming premise that these people live in a pure paradise. The county has its own problems as much as anywhere else, but still has something of its own to offer to the right person. There are no easy answers for any of the characters, and the connections and similarities between them are subtly drawn. For instance, both Professor Hadley and Jack (himself a runaway academic) hear their children say they love them, but the context, and the way they respond, says everything about who they are as parents.

Humboldt County is not a great film, nor a essential one. Nonetheless, it has a better understanding of human nature than the stoner comedy it appears to be. With quiet confidence it can endear itself to you, if you’ve the time to spare.

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