Thursday, April 18, 2013

At Any Price (2012) — Tribeca Film Festival 2013

Parents and kids continue to do awful things to each other, and they don't even need a tension-packed urban landscape to do so. In Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price, Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) drives me up the wall with his hucksterism, an aggressive, single-minded determination and cluelessness in his battle to be the top dog in the competitive modern farm industry. Imagine then how Henry's never-switched-off personality drives his family crazy, especially son Dean (Zac Efron, in a pleasantly surprisingly subtle performance), who wants nothing more than to skip out on the family's generation farm and instead race cars. Both are driven to be the best and both drive off those around them in their obsessive landlocked Ahabesque quests. Loosely established in the film's opening montage of Whipple home movies, it's one of those film-world artificial conflicts without which the entire premise would fall apart. Luckily, then that the performances outweigh the lightweight, fairly predictable script, connecting us with two characters we don't want to pal around with in person but don't mind watching for 105 minutes.

Quaid is rivetingly obnoxious from the start. In another film the character of Henry Whipple might have been a con man. It's an immediately off-easy feeling to discover he's just a guy trying to get ahead—or stay afloat—in a world of ultra-computerized, biogenetically engineered grain farming. One hundred years ago, with his fanatic single-minded determination, he'd have been king of the crops. Today, he's barely staying afloat, thanks to shady deals done on the side—never has the subject of illegally reusing genetically enhanced seeds been given so much screen time. Smooth-talking everyone (including his retired dad) is a system that is no longer working for him, but we realize it long before he does.

At Any Price is one of those dramas where if father and son just confided in each other instead of butting their heads, we wouldn't have a movie. The cliché, of course, is that farming father and racing son are more alike than they know: both resort to shady deals to get ahead (Efron's Dean robs an auto parts store for an engine piece to soup up his hot rod). Their falls are both expected but heartbreaking. Efron mopes with a glowering, suitably sexy teen-age moodiness, but he's strong with the material. He's made some big steps since High School Musical and Charlie St. Cloud from teenage heartthrob to serious actor, but At Any Price would be a much higher spot in his still-young career if he'd been given more meat than scenery to chew on.

A more convincing teenager, Dean's girlfriend Cadence, pops off the screen with Maika Monroe's strong breakout performance. The only character who relates to Henry's world, Cadence serves for a time as his intern. She's bright, funny, and sarcastic, belying her first few couple scenes as a token bubbly teen. Delighted by her own comprehension of the complicated charts, graphs, and maps in Henry's many agricultural binders, she declares 'Your job is like a game!" Henry glumly replies "I used to think so, too." Sexy and smartass Cadence is our entry point into the technical jargon and details of agriculture and seeds, and, for a while, Henry's only confidante, until a Terrible Deed Which Must Be Kept Secret™ forces Henry and Dean together into an emotional bond which protects Dean and ironically benefits Henry.

The cinematography is gorgeous, and accurately captures the sensations of the rural farmland country I grew up in (upstate New York rather than Iowa, but startlingly similar). The film's color palette is saturated with greens, golds, tans and grays from cornfields to dirty tracks. Virtually every color is faded like a pair of old blue jeans, and when a bright color is featured on the screen, it pops like a pinball machine or a Fourth of July fiesta: Cadence's lavender bra peeking out from her little shirt; a racetrack scene where cars parade the flag around the track to the National Anthem. But most of the film seems bleached with dust or grain settling over everything, a faded background that makes you its own. Had At Any Price's script been as subtlely symbolic as its cinematography, it would escape the cliché of small towns in films that we've seen so often: as something to either protect or escape. Perhaps, though, that's the point: that the performers of Quaid, Efron, and especially Monroe throw not only their surroundings into sharp relief, but their always-happening story. It's not the first film where fathers and sons fight not only harsh economic realities but each other, or where both slam up face-first against a future where they can't cut it, but like the Henry Whipple farm, it's the one we have right now, and it's ain't bad.

For details on At Any Price at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, visit the festival website.

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