SXSW 2020 Review: A Marijuana Dealer’s Fall From Great Heights is Captured in Harrowing Detail in “Freeland”

You can imagine when Devi Adler (Krisha Fairchild) set up shop in Humboldt County 32 years before “Freeland” begins how she went about building a home for herself, insisting on a view that would overlook the bountiful marijuana crop that has given her comfort in any number of ways, soothing her soul when smoked and filling her pockets when sold. The hillside palace, befitting of the regal air Devi carries, is both impressive and modest, tucked into the forest where local authorities usually don’t bother to look and set up on stilts that ensure the best place to watch over her kingdom, though the foundation holding it up is looking shakier by the day.

In Mario Furloni and Kate McLean’s stirring narrative feature debut, Devi is one of the longtime purveyors of pot that hasn’t benefitted from the recent legalization of the drug in her native California, suddenly facing competition from well-funded entrepreneurs who are eager to get in on the new market and unable to get a license that is required by law to sell, having largely lived off the grid all this time. This is a travesty when she’s developed one of her most sophisticated strains to date, and one can tell from the way Furloni and McLean, who once shot the documentary “Pot Country,” meticulously detail the process Devi and her three employees – Josh (Frank Mosley), Casey (Cameron James Matthews) and Mara (Lily Gladstone) – grow and lovingly prune their crops that they’ve always held themselves to the highest standards, if not necessarily legal ones.

As perfectly cast as Fairchild was in Trey Edward Shults’ film named after her, she may be even more ideally suited to play Devi, a hustler with hippie values who can hardly believe that for the first time in her life marijuana is making her paranoid when she’s unable to unload it. While she can’t fathom why she’s suddenly unwanted by the buyers who want to do things on the level, it’s quite easy to understand why Josh, at least 30 years her junior, has a bit of a workplace crush and Fairchild lives up to the promise of the juicy part, with Devi effortlessly comporting herself to whatever situation she’s in to get what she wants, whether it’s being short and to the point with the fancy lawyers she visits or dipping into the folksy attitude from her days spent on a commune to deal with both her clients and her workers who have as little appreciation for pretense as she does.

Although it becomes apparent that part of Devi’s issues stem from the inability to let anybody in, the same can’t be said for the actress playing her, once again expertly allowing audiences to see the cracks in the bold, brazen facade and growing into a force of nature around which all of the film’s technical elements seem to be drawing as much energy from as they’re putting in, whether it’s William Ryan Fritch’s piquant and cacophonous score swirls and Furloni’s bob-and-weave cinematography that catches her when she’s elusive to all others. Tightening up like a clenched fist even when Devi is faced with losing her grip on everything, “Freeland” makes for an invigorating drama.

“Freeland” does not yet have U.S. distribution.