Two kinds of movies I just don’t like: movies about farmers and movies about car racing. I thought I would be in real trouble with this one. But I stayed and watched, firstly because of Zac Efron’s piercing, brooding eyes. One might first think ‘At Any Price’ is about young Dean (for James, perhaps…) Whipple’s (Efron) growing pains away from the family tradition of farming and into the spotlight as a racing car champ.
Secondly because there was still much in this film worth watching in an agro-economic-social context. We eventually realize that Efron’s career choices are mostly a subplot, a sexy enticement for the younger audience, and the real heart of the film is about modern farming and how it can rot the very soul and probably destroy farming in America. It’s fascinating, yet frustrating, to see how farming has changed in our Brave New World. The issue is not Industrial Farm Complexes; families own the ever growing farms in this film. There are no foreclosures or auctions that were so popular in 1980’s agrarian films. The issue is how farms grow food. It is noted that instead of rotating crops to maintain the health of the soil, an old and reliable agricultural standby, there are new and exciting artificial fertilizers to allow farmers to grow their favorite cash crop, corn indefinitely. (Really?) The abused fields are also still nonchalantly being sprayed with pesticides. But the main issue being dealt with by our protagonists and fellow farmers is genetically engineered seed and the politics behind it. Should I have noticed that there are no animals anywhere on any farm? Talk about single crop farming!
It’s all so deceptive because on the surface, the farmlands are beautiful and serene, and the corn is actually as high as an elephant’s eye, even though the story takes place in Iowa. Yet, seething below this postcard perfect surface is deceit and immorality of the highest level. The film seems to be about farming issues for about two-thirds of the way, but don’t leave early if you’re an urban sophisticate who shops at Whole Foods and has no interest in farming or Zac’s character development or sexual antics, or Dennis Quaid’s either, for that matter. The last third of the film goes in an unexpected direction which changes the whole outlook of all the main characters. Unfortunately, a plot device or two (like what was that hammer doing there?!) must be overlooked to continue appreciating the predicaments Quaid and Efron must address. I finally begin feeling deeply for Quaid, if not Efron, even with his searing eyes, and sincerely hope Monsanto is blown up and there is no option but to go green — for Quaid’s sake, for all the farmers’ sakes, for our sake…
At Any Price
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writer: Ramin Bahrani from a book by Hallie Elizabeth Newton
Cast: Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Kim Dickens, Maika Monroe, Chelcie Ross
Time: 105 min.
Opening May 3 at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco among many other Bay Area theatres.