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First Look Review - STAR LEAF

A group of stoners go in search of some out of this world weed.


Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Richard Cranor

Starring: Richard Cranor, Julian Gavilanes, Russell Hodgkinson, Shelby Truax, Kiki Yeung




"When it’s doing horror, Star Leaf intrigues, and when it explores the effect of combat it involves, but when the drugs take hold, it loses its grip. There’s an interesting, unique film to be found in Star Leaf, but the potential gets a little hazy in all that smoke."


Drugs and cinema have an uneasy affiliation. Historically, controlled substances were demonised by the silver screen, the ‘unspeakable scourge’ of such throwbacks as Reefer Madness and (the incredible) Curious Alice, yet also the virtual antagonists of more recent morality plays such as Requiem for a Dream (a film that leaves the viewer too terrified to imbibe so much as an aspirin). More positive representations of drug culture can be found in films such as the Cheech and Chong cycle, alongside other awful movies such as How High and Hansel and Gretel Get Baked. And these sort of sophomoric films generally are terrible, mainly because the humour relies on the viewer being somewhat impaired, yet also because they attempt to exploit a sensation that is introspective within a medium that is generally anything but: drug films fail to hit the mark for the same reason flicks about video games usually do, because the medium cannot capture the subjective absorption of either activity. The reason something like, say, The Big Lebowski succeeds is because it isn’t about getting high, instead dropping a stoner in the middle of a berserk noir thriller, and subsequently making the most of the Dude’s heroic befuddlement. Somewhere between the two poles of pseudo-PSA rhetoric and day-glo disposable comedy, the stoner archetype has become part of the dramatic personae of modern cinema, ambling into films as diverse as Cabin in the Woods, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and even Apocalypse Now, wandering through the plot like a contemporary Shakespearian fool, dispensing a convoluted wisdom and an outsider’s perspective on narrative occurrences.
In Richard Cranor’s Star Leaf, the holy stoner is an ancient Willie Nelson-alike weed grower Seth (Russell Hodgkinson), who tells our trio of heroes - returning marines James (Julian Gavilanes), Tim (Tyler Trerise) and his girlfriend, vain Martha (Shelby Truax), who have ventured to Seth’s druggy compound in the Washington mountains in search of his mythical ‘star leaf’ stash - that ‘somewhere out there is a giant disco ball, casting countless reflections and each one of us is a tiny piece of that infinite light’. And, in Star Leaf at least, his celestial stoner poetry may have a point, as the marijuana that grows within his forest is actually extra-terrestrial in origin, and literally mind blowing in reputation. The gang are welcome to smoke the fabled draw, Seth warns, but with only two caveats; no one is allowed to take clippings, or even a selfie up on the mountain (the GPS in phones reveals the location). Well, even the Dude could guess what happens next…
The striking thing about Star Leaf is that the first half is really promising, and immediately puffs away any fears that this will simply be a tiresome stoner flick for an undiscerning audience off their tits. We open with James and Tim in Afghanistan, embroiled in a tense American Sniper like scenario that involves insurgents, a bomb strapped small child, and James’ shaky aim… When we cut back to America and the two marines’ road trip, we can see clearly how the tragic mishap has affected both men; in an impressive performance, Gavilanes is all tight muscles and short shrift, gobbling prescription drugs to combat his PTSD, while Tim indulges in a more herbal medication. With his naff beads, Ganesh Granola and talk of ‘Next. Level. Shit.’, Tim is exactly like one of the giggling goons you’d find in a How High or a Harold and Kumar. Yet as the film goes on, his infatuation with all things green is revealed to be as tragic as James’ dependency on pills, another form of escapism from the damage wreaked by their experience of combat. The characterisation in Star Leaf is unusually strong; all three characters have a laidback rapport, and it is easy to imagine them as friends. When things start to go awry, this chemistry (excuse the pun) between the trio really helps to sell the drama and jeopardy.
And sadly, things do go awry.  Not just for our gang, but for the film in general. Star Leaf loses its way in the middle, fittingly right about when the three inevitably find the fabled leaves and toke up. The usual sort of montage attempt at capturing the feeling of an altered state ensues (a deer chews a massive marijuana leaf, the sky explodes in fireworks, that sort of thing), and then, due to Martha and Tim breaking a few of the genial dealer’s rules, it’s open season on stoners, as big green men, savages in animal furs, and even the Taliban all seemingly descend upon our gang. Talk about a comedown. Engaging in a ‘is this really happening or is it all just a bad trip’ dynamic, Star Leaf ‘s second act simply exhausts the narrative - there’s never any dramatic mileage in this sort of approach where horror is concerned, why should we care if someone is in danger if we don’t trust what we’re seeing? Admittedly, the film has sincere comments to make on friendship and America’s actions during the overseas conflict (director Richard Cranor, playing a puckish park ranger who appears while the trio are on it, mockingly sings the Marine’s anthem at James), but I would have liked more from the film at points: for example, the intriguing idea of space drugs could have been explored further than the film's (rather impressive) psychedelic, prog rock opening credits (speaking of credits, make sure you stay for the post-credits sting; a creepy and mind bending extra).
When it’s doing horror, Star Leaf intrigues, and when it explores the effect of combat it involves, but when the drugs take hold, it loses its grip. There’s an interesting, unique film to be found in Star Leaf, but the potential gets a little hazy in all that smoke.




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