An artfully downbeat drama that proves easier to admire than to embrace, “At Any Price” offers another highly specific snapshot of a little-seen American subculture from writer-helmer Ramin Bahrani. Although it marks a major step up in budget and ambition, this resonant tale of an Iowa seed-farming family feels perfectly consistent with Bahrani’s shoestring fables (“Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo”), tilling unusually serious-minded soil even for a specialty release. Sincere and a bit studied, deeply felt yet designed to hold auds at a distance, the Sony Classics pickup will bank on favorable reviews and its name leads to cultivate a following.
Starting with a montage of faded homevideo footage that casts Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron as members of a heartland family, this well-acted slice of rural Americana feels like a unique marriage of studio polish and neorealist sensitivity. As scripted by Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton, everything here seems to run refreshingly counter to the norms of most commercially oriented filmmaking, from the way the drama demystifies its unfashionable Midwest setting to its determined engagement with our current era of economic blight and diminished opportunity.
No humble corn grower, Henry Whipple (Quaid) has made a name for himself in Iowa farm country, enthusiastically hawking a brand of genetically modified super-seeds. Yet his loud-mouthed optimism goes only so far in concealing the cracks in his particular version of the American Dream. Henry’s opportunism has made him a number of enemies, and he’s losing ground to a rival salesman, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). Meanwhile, his ongoing affair with a local good-time girl (Heather Graham) points to a profound lack of communication with his faithful, hard-working wife, Irene (Kim Dickens, movingly restrained).
With his favored elder son away indefinitely, Henry tries to initiate his younger boy, Dean (Efron), in the ways of the family business. But Dean, an impulsive hothead, resents his dad’s longtime neglect and general self-absorption. When the kid isn’t hanging with casual g.f. Cadence (Maika Monroe), he devotes himself to pursuing a professional race-car driving career, as depicted in exciting, tightly edited ARCA track sequences that add further layers of visual and dramatic texture.
The two leads are in fine form here: Quaid poignantly reveals the jumble of insincerity and good intentions beneath Henry’s boisterous exterior, while the callow streak that Efron has often displayed as an actor has never felt as raw, vital and emotionally explosive as it does here. Before it reaches a full-blown Sturm und Drang pitch, the tense father-son dynamic feels believably rooted in a long history of resentments and misunderstandings, yet it’s also complicated by Dean’s willingness to defend his dad against those who seek his downfall.
Nearly every relationship in this fine-grained community portrait feels similarly thought through and given its proper weight. Bahrani proves attentive even to the interactions of the minor characters, handing a few particular pointed scenes to Monroe’s appealing Cadence, a smart girl with a still-unformed sense of herself. Among the supporting cast, Brown and Chelcie Ross turn in rich, humane turns as two farmers trying in their own ways to adapt to a high-tech new world order.
In keeping with the director’s past micro-studies of life in society’s margins, “At Any Price” is deeply invested in the question of how ordinary people get by. The lush establishing shots of farms, fields and windmills (beautifully lensed on the Red camera by Michael Simmonds), often accompanied by the synth strains of Dickon Hinchliffe’s score, pay loving tribute to a rapidly shifting way of life. Audiences will learn more than they ever expected to learn about the practice of planting, cleaning and reusing seeds, as well as the aggressive competition and dubious business practices so rampant in modern agriculture.
The fastidiousness of this sociological inquiry is undeniably impressive, even if it sometimes puts a stranglehold on spontaneity, as in the emergence of a dark third-act twist. The way Bahrani deals with the fallout is at once vaguely unsatisfying and admirably bold in its lack of moral resolution, casting a long shadow of deceit and injustice over the sun-dappled pastoral imagery that closes the picture. Yet the film’s truer, more generous heart may rest in an earlier sequence of the characters singing the National Anthem together, their off-key voices isolated one by one, an authentic expression of faith in a community’s ability to weather any storm.