“My father was a weed dealer.”
In one succinct sentence, writer-director Shana Feste has summed up the subject at the heart of her latest film, Boundaries.
“That was just a part of my childhood,” she explains. “He went to prison for trafficking marijuana, so I’ve been around weed my whole life.”
Following the success of her previous films — including the 2010 Gwyneth Paltrow-starring Country Strong and the 2014 romance Endless Love — Feste kept things close to home for her newest project. The narrative of an adult woman forced to take her elderly, pot-dealing father on a road trip after he’s evicted from his retirement home was borrowed largely from Feste’s own life.
While Boundaries isn’t a film about cannabis, the plant is an integral element of the plot. As Jack Jaconi, the indomitable Christopher Plummer uses his impromptu travels to sell weed to old acquaintances. Having shot the film two years ago, Feste says she had to incorporate extra dialogue to contextualize the movie in the new landscape of legalized pot.
“We knew it was about to be legalized in California,” she explains, “so we actually had to add in a line where [Jack] says he wants to switch products because weed has lost its fun, now that it’s about to become legal.”
Feste’s father’s story is one for the ages. Married six times, he had six children and an affinity for all manner of stray pets. In addition to his career as a cannabis dealer, Feste was also charged with racketeering crimes for once besting a casino and also enjoyed a stint as a bookie. His daughter recalls that Feste once returned from a trip to Africa and brought back diamonds he’d smuggled in a cowboy hat.
While ceaselessly charming, Robert Feste was chronically unreliable during Shana’s childhood, thanks to stints in prison, his many romantic entanglements, and a willingness to drop everything when the prospect of a good scheme arose. The fraught nature of Shana’s relationship with her father is a focal point of Boundaries, which endears the character of Jack to the audience but quickly reveals the many cracks lurking beneath his alluring smile.
Beyond its work as a character study of a uniquely chaotic family, Boundaries also provides a nuanced, realistic look at the people who actually consume cannabis. Following decades of stoner comedies where marijuana served more as a punchline than a plot point, the individuals who buy from Plummer’s character are not simply bored teenagers and tie-dye-clad relics of the 1960s.
For one scene, Feste cast a woman in remission from cancer to play a patient who relies of medical cannabis to alleviate her symptoms.
“I think, in some of the montages of Jack dealing marijuana, it was really a way for me to celebrate humanity,” Feste suggests. “I was always intrigued by how many different people my father knew and the circles he ran in.”
Before Robert Feste passed away in June 2017, his daughter made sure he had a chance to leave his mark on the film by casting him as one of Jack’s clients. True to form, he chastised Shana for outfitting him in an orange reflective vest that wasn’t “dirty or ratty enough.”
“He’d been on parole, and he’d worn those vests to do beach clean-up,” Feste recalls. “He was upset because he knew the city would never have had vests that clean.”
When Feste tried to offer her father direction for the scene — that perhaps he should look over his shoulder or act a bit nervous — he flatly dismissed the suggestions.
“I asked him what he would do in real life,” Feste says, “and he said, ‘Nothing. I would maybe take a hit and I would buy it. I’m not fucking nervous, Shana.’ ”
Ultimately, Feste hopes Boundaries captures the spirit of cannabis as she came to know it through the tumultuous times she shared with her father. To that end, she tried to keep things as authentic as possible — even incorporating real cannabis plants into shots whenever possible.
Similar to films that use fake currency, viewers just seem able to tell when they’re seeing a fake on screen. Feste says her production designer, Page Buckner, went to great lengths to show quality cannabis wherever possible.
“It broke his heart that we weren’t able to use real plants in Jack’s grow room,” she says. “We had to use fake plants, and they didn’t move as much as we wanted them to.”
Even the score was composed with an ear toward avoiding what Feste calls “Mickey Mousing” the film. Instead Michael Penn focused on the darker, dramatic beats and resisted the urge to overplay the comedic, zany aspects.
“I think you’ll still laugh,” Feste says, “but I’m working with childhood trauma here.”
To that end, despite their sometimes fraught relationship, the person Feste most hopes Boundaries impresses is her father’s spirit.
“He smoked for his entire life,” she says. “He used to give it to his dogs before you could give it to your dogs. It was something that was really important to him, so I hope that I’ve captured that. That would be really lovely.”
Boundaries is now playing in Bay Area theaters.
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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