Here's a simple, safe way for movie producers to decide whether or not to develop a so-called "Indie" film script that comes across their desk: if the proposed film's writers and directors claim to be updating The Graduate for "their generation," stash your money away, kick the aspiring Mike Nichols out of your office, and pour yourself a stiff drink. You have only narrowly avoided a catastrophe. These are deranged, dangerous individuals. They are not the people you want to be socializing with, and in these lean times, they are not who you want creating a movie on your dime.
In the promotional materials for Humboldt County, co-writers and directors Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky justify their motivations for making the film: "We wanted to create a movie for our generation. We looked around at many of our friends and realized that the modern day post-grad was not someone who sat around at a pool all day, napping. Many of our generation are young people who are working furiously on the hamster wheel; they just don't know where they're going." Social saviors that they are, Jacobs and Grodsky set out to fix that situation. The resulting film is a maudlin cesspool of clichéd storylines and banal character types that will surely appeal to all the confused, anxious, upper-middle class twenty-somethings who adored the contrived melancholy that was Garden State.
Humboldt County is cinematic déjÃ vu. It's as if the film was based solely on the instructions of a "How to Make Indie Movies for Dummies" guide: (1) adrift, quirky, but ultimately redeemable male lead (not only do you come to love him, you relate to him as well) -- check, Humboldt's got that; (2) darlingly adorable and shockingly precocious little girl (a six-year-old talking about sex and drugs and The Closing of the American Mind -- oh my god, the writers of this film are so outrageous and funny!!) -- Humboldt's got that too; (3) emotionally detached, demanding father (like, nothing can please him) -- come on, now that's just a given; and finally (4) tragic accident near the film's end that makes little narrative sense, but by its very presence gives the film gravity, making it mean something (car accidents involving alcohol are always best for this) -- well, of course, this is an "Indie" movie we're talking about here.
A plot summary of Humboldt County is little more than a listing of stereotypes. Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong) is the tightly-wound med student with an overbearing father (Peter Bogdanovich). His father, also a UCLA med school professor, fails Peter on a pivotal exam because Peter is devoid of empathy for a patient (remember, he's tightly-wound). This leads Peter, clad in his slacks and suit vest, to a seedy jazz club where he meets the movie's free-spirit, Bogart (Fairuza Balk). Obviously, just like what happens so frequently in life off the screen, Peter quickly flees med school, and after a night with Bogart (one of her actual lines: "Can't a girl just have casual sex anymore without being..."), travels with her to California's redwood country. It's there he meets Bogart's motley crew of friends that includes the aforementioned cute child, a number of Bogart's ex-lovers, and a stifled physics professor who's traded academia for a life in the woods. The community survives by growing small patches of marijuana. Bogart quickly and conveniently disappears (remember, she's a free-spirit and her plot function has been served), abandoning Peter in an alien environment. But wouldn't you know it, he manages to fit right in with these free-loving hippies and sheds the rigidity of his former life. He even smokes pot a few times.
The film can't decide whether or not it wants to make a political message about legalizing marijuana -- or even what that message would be if it did. The pot aspect thus becomes little more than a plot device. (Those truly interested in California's burgeoning semi-legal marijuana economy should read David Samuels' excellent New Yorker piece on the subject.) Truly, the only worthwhile aspect of the film is the cinematography that, in scene after scene, captures the majestic, haunting beauty of the redwoods and California's coastline. One wishes Humboldt County had been a silent nature documentary, rather than the groping, sappy, predictable mess that it is.
Ultimately, while critics lament the ubiquity of dumbed-down, mass entertainment movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Mamma Mia!, films like Humboldt County, Juno, and Little Miss Sunshine should be considered equally pernicious. At least a film like Snakes on a Plane doesn't consider itself to be "art." Humboldt County clearly does, and it's a main reason why the film is so insufferable. Truly original, thought-provoking non-mainstream films still exist in American cinema, but audiences too infrequently get to see them because movies espousing an easy, faux-sophistication, like Humboldt County, are much easier to place in theaters. Aspiring writer/directors should stop trying to remake the classics of past generations. One version of The Graduate is enough.