Trim Season had its world première at the Overlook Film Festival 2023
“Murder. All kinds of sketchy illegal messed up shit happens up here. This place used to be a paradise, and now the energy’s all fucked up.”
Hippy-dippy dope connoisseur Harriet (Ally Ioannides) is talking about Northern California’s Humboldt County in the Emerald Triangle, where much of the state’s (and country’s) cannabis is grown, whether for the blackmarket or recently for more licit distribution (at least within California), and where indeed there really is an unusually high rate of missing persons and murder.
The very opening sequence of Trim Season had already shown both the paradise and its loss. For after idyllic, overtly Malickian shots of a field bathed in magic-hour light, and of a wispy young woman’s hand brushing over rows of leaves (even if these are not Malick’s usual wheat stalks or grass, but bud-laden marijuana plants), we then see two dazed women in a room repeatedly stabbing themselves, seemingly against their own will, with the scissors that one of them had just been using to trim leaves from the buds, even as someone else is, just like us, watching from the shadows.
It is a scene of both horror and mystery – and while this is a long way from the sanctimonious simplicities of Louis J. Gasnier’s anti-cannabis propaganda picture Reefer Madness (1936), it immediately establishes an associative connection between the two bloody bodies now lying dead on the floor, and the spliff that we see smouldering in an ashtray. The illicit business in which these women were engaged is clearly dangerous, even if the particularities of that danger are as yet less obvious.
The film then introduces, via a neat match cut from marijuana fog to the smoke from an overheating engine, its main character Emma (Bethlehem Million), a nervous, unassertive young woman whose general loss of control over her life has been crystallised by her loss of her waitressing job and of her LA lodgings all within a brief 24-hour period. The night before, when skeezy stranger James (Marc Senter) tried, over bar drinks, to recruit her and her BFF Julia (Alex Essoe) for lucrative seasonal work as a trimmer on a remote farm up north, Emma saw nothing but red flags; but now, as she wakes up in the cold light of day to being broke, homeless and desperate, Emma reluctantly joins Julia and three others – the unapologetically larcenous Harriet, the congenitally analgesic Lex (Juliette Kenn De Balinthazy) and the genderfluid Dusty (Bex Taylor-Klaus) – for a two-week residency of trimming and toking at The Hollow.
Once James has driven them past the locked gate with its two armed guards (Austin R. Grant, Lorenzo Antonucci), they meet the farm’s owner Mona (a show-stopping Jane Badler), incongruously dressed in a black evening dress, long black gloves and a string of pearls whose number and size grows as the film goes on. Overaffectionate towards her older son Christopher (Cory Hart) and domineering towards the younger Malcolm (Ryan Donowho), the campish, vampish Mona has a commanding presence, making a stairtop entrance with her face lit up as though she were a fading star of the silver screen.
Mona is charming, generous, and happy to let her ‘children’ indulge in as much wine and quality weed as they like provided they do their work – while she puffs only on her own private stash of red buds. It seems a sweet deal, but if the film’s bloody, stabby prologue was not enough to portend trouble in paradise, skittish Emma starts having nightmarish visions of her own. The gloves are about to come off, revealing something toxic underneath whose heady potency is near impossible to resist, as Mona and her bumper crop cast an insidious spell over the whole mountain.
Trim Season is the directorial feature debut of Ariel Vida – production designer on The Endless (2017), She Dies Tomorrow (2020), Archenemy (2020) and Something in the Dirt (2022) – who adapted the screenplay with co-writer David Blair from a story originally conceived by Megan Sutherland, Sean E DeMott, and Cullen Poythress. Here we seem to be in familiar horror territories – there is a cabin in the woods, a tent in the open, an axe in a tree stump, pot-smoking youths and an older woman in full hagsploitation mode – yet everything is cut together to defy expectation. There is even a sequence in which a bare-breasted character is menaced while taking an outdoor shower – a staple of slashers since at least Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981), with a history that can be traced back to Alfred Hitchcock’s more restrained Psycho (1960) – except that here it is Dusty (expressly ‘they/them’) in the shower, with the scars still visible from their top surgery, not that this makes them any less vulnerable to leering eyes and masculine bluster. Such subversions show an adroit confidence with the manipulation of genre tropes, while keeping viewers on their toes.
There is an explanation, irrational and paranormal as it may be, for what is going on, rooted in folk horror and fairytales, but everything always comes back to marijuana: not only to the hallucinatory visuals, the loss of bodily control and the disorienting distortions of space and time that heavy weed use can bring (and that are recurring elements in the film’s narrative and aesthetic), but also to its much-discussed medicinal properties. For this is ultimately a story of regeneration and healing – and if Emma is going to be cured of her timidity and to learn to stand up for herself, she will first need to relax, to find her own place in this operation’s hierarchy, and to take things into her own hands.
“I see myself in you,” Mona tells Emma, “I used to be that girl. A long time ago. So gentle. So soft. You are so young. But it doesn’t last.” Perhaps paradise lost can after all be regained – or perhaps the whole pernicious cycle, like a crop’s season, is just ending so that it can start over again, in an infernal loop. As Emma buds and blooms, and as the smoky winds of change – or at least of revolving stasis – waft through a European matriarchal tradition transplanted to the Californian backwoods, our heroine might be discovering her own female empowerment, or she might just be reviving her inner Mona. Either way, it is a kind of personal growth and journey – although watching its giallo-lit suspirious witchery while baked to the eyeballs may also engender a bad trip…
strap: Ariel Vida’s directorial feature debut has a timid marijuana trimmer coming of age in a faraway farm of folk horror
© Anton Bitel