To call “At Any Price” a “farm drama” is misleading. Yes, it is a drama about farm life, but it has none of the fuzzy morning-in-America nostalgia the phrase might suggest.
Director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani has created a modern story of a farm family, which means it has one foot in today’s headlines and the other in a classic father-son conflict.
The Whipple family has farmed the same land in Iowa for four generations, as the current head of the family, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), mentions proudly when he’s working his other job as a seed salesman. But while he’s the No. 1 seed supplier in seven counties, he’s desperate to hang onto that territory when his bigger rival, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), muscles in on some of his established customers.
Henry aims to pass his land and business to his sons, but they’re not interested in crops. Grant (Patrick W. Stephens) has left Iowa for adventures elsewhere and is heard from only through the occasional postcard. Dean (Zac Efron) is still at home, but his dream is to become a NASCAR driver, so he spends most of his time racing at the local dirt track in hopes of making the big time.
Meanwhile, Henry cheats on his wife, Irene (Kim Dickens), maintaining an affair with his high-school crush, Meredith (Heather Graham). He’s also dishonest in business, selling bootleg seed on the side, in violation of the seed company’s contracts. When the seed company’s investigators come sniffing around, Henry fears for his farm’s future.
Bahrani (who has a good reputation for working-class indie dramas like “Goodbye Solo” and “Chop Shop”) and co-writer Hallie Newton create dialogue that’s simple and direct, dispensing emotions that are raw and real. The script neatly distills the issues of modern agriculture, melding them to the age-old question of whether a man can follow in his father’s footsteps or blaze his own path.
What solidifies the drama of “At Any Price” are the quietly intense performances, including character actors Red West as Henry’s no-bull dad and Chelcie Ross as a friend of Henry’s, caught in bad economic times. Best of all is Quaid, who uses the salesman’s ready smile to paper over the troubles that Henry’s lies — the ones told to his wife, his customers and himself — have wrought.
‘At Any Price’
An Iowa farmer feels his world tearing apart in this emotionally powerful drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language.
Running time • 105 minutes.