MOVIE REVIEW : A Marijuana Farmer Grows Up in 'The Money Tree'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Low in budget, high in spirits, Alan Dienstag's largely improvised "The Money Tree" (at the Ken) is worth infinitely more than slick but soulless Hollywood junk such as "Stephen King's Sleepwalkers" or the silly "Brenda Starr." Sure, it's rough around the edges, but it has the breath of real life and a genuinely sweet and endearing sensibility. It's funny, it's scary, and it even makes you think and feel.

The director's son, Christopher, stars as David, a pot farmer about to harvest his first crop, hidden in thickets of Marin County's Mt. Tamalpais. He's under pressure from all sides: His ambitious girlfriend, Erica (Monica T. Caldwell), wants him to take a cushy corporate job with her rich father right now , harvest or no harvest; his theater director pal (Nik Martin) urges him to get back into acting and take it seriously. As a middle-class dropout, David looks forward to clearing a comparatively easy $70,000-plus.

But there's more to David's pot growing than this, which gives this casual-seeming, off-the-cuff film its ballast and dimension. David finds he actually likes the work of planting the notorious weed and watching it grow, and through this discovery, the film raises the whole question of legalizing marijuana in a fresh way. Although "The Money Tree" lapses into a gratuitous preachiness every now and then on the behalf of legalization, it doesn't require you to be pro or con in relation to its cause in order to enjoy it; it's very much a classic story of a young man in the process of self-discovery and making choices.

The film's thriller elements, although played for comedy, certainly do make it clear that growing and especially selling marijuana can be highly dangerous. You may find yourself put off by Erica's relentlessly conventional and materialistic values, yet you find yourself agreeing with her that David is crazy to stay in such a risky business. Dienstag and Caldwell, resourceful actors both, make David and Erica's mutual attraction sufficiently charged for us to believe in their volatile relationship.

With the cast improvising their lines it's not surprising that "The Money Tree" (Times-rated Mature for adult themes, situations, some strong language) occasionally becomes too talky for its own good. Technically, it's wildly uneven, especially in its sound recording. However, it's steadfast where it counts, which is in its good-natured spirit combined with a detached, mature perspective.

'The Money Tree'

Christopher Dienstag: David

Monica T. Caldwell: Erica

Malcolm Cohen: Vincent

Nik Martin: Chad

A Black Sheep Films presentation. Director Alan Dienstag. Producer Christopher Dienstag. Cinematographer Donatello Bonato. Editor Susan Crutcher. Music Lorin Rowan. Sound Adam Lieberman. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (adult themes, situations; some strong language).

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