For moviegoers accustomed to stoner-dude protagonists, “The Marijuana Conspiracy” offers a nice change. The Canadian drama, set in 1972, is full of Mary Janes. Okay, really just one Mary and one Jane. But they’re joined by other young women who answer a call to participate in a research project. For 98 days, Mary, Janice, Jane, Mourinda and Marissa will be able — more like required — to smoke dope. And they get to imbibe without fear of the fuzz.
Writer-director Craig Pryce adapted the true story of research the Addiction Research Foundation undertook when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau began considering the decriminalization of recreational cannabis. (Hint: They were not for it.) It was dubbed “Project Marijuana,” but Pryce has renamed it the friskier sounding “Project Venus.”
“The Marijuana Project,” available on demand 4/20 (wink wink), is a mildly buzzy hybrid that swings from serious to light and back again. If the category is dope movies, then Pryce and his appealing ensemble have delivered a version that comes with weed-induced giggles but also some gravitas. Its characters are aware enough of feminism’s rallying cries to want more for themselves but are not necessarily in a position to easily change their situations. A different kind of green is the real lure of the paid three-month stint.
The movie also tussles with research malfeasance, the stuff of “The Experimenter” and “The Stanford Prison Project.” (A Toronto Sun exposé into the little-known study and its never-published findings informs the movie.) Those indies grappled with their respective researchers’ desire — and unethical methods — to unlock their subjects’ capacity for cruelty and torture. With weed now legal in many areas, the “Marijuana Conspiracy” research project may now seem absurd, laughable, scientifically wispy. And yet, it isn’t without cruelty.
Mary (Julia Sarah Stone) lived on the streets before walking into the concrete office building that will be home for the next months. Mourinda (Tymika Tafari) has a fro to die for and a thoughtful white boyfriend who nonetheless doesn’t seem eager for her to meet the parents. Jane (Brittany Bristow) comes off as vivacity incarnate; we meet her as she’s about to tell her chauvinistic boss to shove it. Marissa (Morgan Kohan) is a wholesome graphic designer with plans to start a business. No stranger in a strange land when it comes to pot, globetrotting Janice (Kyla Young) has lived the boldest life of the new friends.
Actor Gregory Calderone brings a with-it vibe to Dr. Barry Fincher, the handsome hipster behavioralist who can’t quite turn town the complicated research gig. The guy who seeks him out, John Bradow (Derek McGrath), likes martini lunches and thick cigars. The signifiers of corporate-approved addiction abound. The shrink hired to be on site likes his pipe, and cigarette packs are abundant, but then, the screenplay is not exactly subtle.
Dr. Harlow (Paulino Nunes) is the psychiatrist brought onto the project to serve as the condescending mouthpiece for paternalism. Marie Ward pulls off a stern warmth as that rule-following nurse. Janice quickly tags Alice with the nickname Nurse Ratched. Don’t bother to do the math of whether “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” had come out in 1972 (it hadn’t). “I’ve read the book,” she says. “That’s cute, now move on.”
Pryce can’t resist the shiny temptations that a 1970s-set tale present: The cars, the music, the clothes, even the lingo distract. Dr. Fincher likes his twill blazers and turtlenecks. Jane pulls off her mini and maxi skirt ensembles. Costume designer Marie Grogan Hales has a wild time with plaids, paisleys and flared-bottom pants, the tempering the film’s heavier themes of sexism, racism and class differences.
True to the saying “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” things start to get dicey. Sleep cycles go awry. Once chipper communal activities grow quiet. And there are bouts of paranoia. All the while, assistants with clipboards and pens move in and out of the rooms taking notes. We’re right to ask if this devolution is a result the dope, the strength of which has been upped, or is it the isolation?
For three months, the women aren’t allowed to go outside, to have contact with anyone else apart from the women in their cannabis cohort (although they can write letters). Even the research assistants are prohibited from interaction, which of course gets tested.
“Creepy,” Marissa says after the very cute research assistant Adam (Luke Bilyk) walks her through the rules on intake. When he tries — in his sweetly upstanding way — to calm her concerns with data, she says, “Still creepy.” It’s hard not to agree.