David (Luke Wilson) is a stoner living in Portland, Oregon. After selling marijuana to a woman named Jennifer (Amy Locane), he is introduced to her friends, the tempestuous Serena (Alicia Witt), and Robert (Jeremy Sisto) and Tony (Andy Dick), a gay couple. Serena develops a liking to David after seeing the artwork he does in his spare time, and encourages him to make a career for himself. After moving into his house, she introduces him to Mary Weiss (Brittany Murphy), the daughter of a local gallery owner who falsely claims to be an art curator.
Serena becomes frustrated with David's lack of ambition, and decides to move to New York City with Tommy (Jamie Kennedy), a punk rocker and paranoid heroin addict. Before she leaves, she and David get into a fight, which ends in her burning down his house. In New York, Serena becomes increasingly frustrated with Tommy's paranoid antics. She meets Bobby (Scott Caan) one afternoon in a diner, and he invites her to move in with him in his apartment, which she discovers is actually a squat in the East Village.
In Portland, David begins a romance with Mary, and moves in with Robert, Tony, and Jennifer. While hiking with Mary, David runs into his friend Devlin (Jack Black), who is running a spiritual retreat in the woods, where they partake in LSD. While Mary marches through the woods with Devlin, David has a hallucination in which his deceased mother brings him lunch. In New York, Serena and Jennifer attend a party, where Serena is date raped. The following day, she confesses to Jennifer she wants to return to Portland. The two return the next day, but Serena is disheartened soon after when she discovers David and Jennifer having sex.
Several days later, David attends a 1980s-themed party with Jennifer, Robert, and Tony, which is busted by police. He flees to the rooftop, where he finds Serena sitting alone. Serena confronts him about him having sex with Jennifer, and he asks her if she's planning on staying in Portland. She tells him she isn't sure, and that she doesn't want to become too comfortable there again. She apologizes for the fire she set at David's house. They kiss, and then witness a UFO floating above them in the sky.Luke Wilson as David
Alicia Witt as Serena
Amy Locane as Jennifer
Brittany Murphy as Mary Weiss
Jack Black as Devlin
Andy Dick as Tony
Jeremy Sisto as Robert
Jamie Kennedy as Tommy
Scott Caan as Bobby
Christian J. Meoli as Tobo
George Kuchar as Homeless Man
Patricia Wettig as David's Mom
Michael Artura as Cop
Scott Anthony Ferguson as Fireman
Kyle Gass as Guitar Player
Eric Mabius as Fenton (uncredited)
The screenplay for the film was adapted from Michael Hornburg's 1995 novel of the same name. The novel was based on Hornburg's experience living in Portland in the mid-1980s; the Serena character in the film—originally named Courtney in the novel—is based on Courtney Love, whom Hornburg knew in Portland.
The film was shot on location in Portland, Oregon and New York City on a budget of $1,000,000.
The film was released at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival on April 18, 1998, and later premiered on DVD in 2001.
Lael Loewenstein, film critic for Variety magazine, gave the film a mixed review, writing: "The latest entry in the growing field of indie youth ensemble films, Bongwater is an uneven, intermittently likable movie about a group of Portland residents for whom getting high is a way of life. While its fresh-faced but largely unknown cast members frequently rise above the material, pic isn't distinctive enough to suggest it will yield more than a limited run in specialized markets."
Ann Limpert of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B rating, writing: "The title notwithstanding, this drug-laden laugh trip is more Reality Bites than Up in Smoke...Though [Wilson and Witt's] lack of real chemistry makes the cuddly ending feel tacked on, the hysterical drug-buddy performances of Brittany Murphy, Andy Dick, and Jack Black really make this joint roll."
TV Guide's Robert Pardi gave the film a negative review, writing: "This smoke-dream love story gives aimlessness a bad name: It's hard to concur with the screenplay's insistence that there's both pathos and humor to be found in the bong-inhaling, bed-hopping lives of these indolent characters."
NominationsDVD Exclusive Awards (Video Business Magazine): Video Premiere Award, Best Supporting Actress, Brittany Murphy; 2001.