Review by Sarah Williams
Freeland is probably the gentlest stoner movie you'll see, and it's deeply rooted in emotion. Devi (Krisha Fairchild) is an aging weed farmer desperate to sell this year’s harvest, which may be her last due to the increasing restrictions that come with legalization. Unlike most films about drugs, it’s serene and unaggressive, instead portraying the ageless counter cultural spirit. A quiet, meditative examination of one woman’s struggle to adapt, it’s a backwoods look at changing times.
The easiest way to describe the film is that it feels like a stoner Kelly Reichardt film. The wilderness compositions are stunning, with a hazy fog rolling in at times, and a beating sun making the treeline glow gold at others. Mario Furloni and Kate McLean’s film is one with the world it is in, and their personal, almost documentary-like style is able to cover a limited story and sparse script. One of the film’s most stunning shots shows Devi popping her head out from underwater in a lake, perhaps reborn into a world she has been trying to avoid for years.
Frequent Trey Edward Shults collaborator Krisha Fairchild is devastating to watch here. Her character, and her soon-to-retire partner (John Craven) are part of an older generation often considered more uptight and conservative about these matters, but she is part of a subset that is the last to be truly free. She didn't have to discover this natural world for herself, she began with it, and has stayed apart from the rules of the world. Losing her farm is an unwelcome force from society, one that begs her to integrate in a world she has never belonged to. For everyone else in the farm, this is a devastating loss of their lifestyles, but for Devi, this has always been her life.
Certain Women breakout Lily Gladstone has a minor role, but is fantastic as usual. She adds a layer of warmth to her alt-hippie character, who is part of Krisha's band fighting against the industrialization of their livelihood. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more screen time, one of the aspects that could have been much more fleshed out in a longer runtime. Freeland is a story of found family beneath Devi's legal struggle. It's a cobbled-together group who've learned to care for each other out in the wilderness. They blend in with their surroundings just as much as the deer darting around the plains, camouflaged because they've learned to trust nature. This unbroken territory is their freedom, and the farm is the tether to the real world that allows them to have it. The eighty-minute runtime is almost completely set within this tight-knit group, a smart decision in limiting the film's scope.
To them, this harvest is what keeps their freedom, and legalization is taking their world away more than it gives them any leeway. Marijuana is one of the most tightly regulated crops in places that allow it to be grown and sold, and the tight-knit clan the film follows is not used to all the legal struggles that come with it. The ever-shifting industry is pushing them out in favor of corporate newcomers, and this strikes Devi heavily.
Issues that may come from making a film about a mainly white group of people in the industry are staved off by showing pre-legalization hippies. They aren't the ones directly coming in to gentrify in cities and sell expensive synthetics, they're just a found family who feel connected to the land, and this plant has been their life long before talk of legalization. They operate in a realm separate from this commercialized drug industry, so they're exempt from most of the discussion.
Opening credits of warm, grainy home movie footage set a precedent for what is to come. This is a film that feels like a family memory, one telling the tale of how their lives changed. Conflict is only at the fore when Devi lets down her guard as she tries to shut it out, and in these moments we are let inside a legal battle to keep their lives. It’s so calm yet grounded in the desire for independence that the short runtime is nowhere near enough. It could reach a full two hours with flowing nature shots and calm gatherings, and fit perfectly into the world of slow cinema as an American entry. The appreciation for the outdoors is one of the strongest points, and drawing this out, along with more time to develop side characters, would make it an absolute knockout of a film.
Freeland was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.