The universal theme of personal principle vs. human necessity gets a workout in languid but inexorably powerful morality play, “Runoff.” Set against the backdrop of an economically challenged rural America, and driven by a riveting performance from Joanne Kelly (TV series “Warehouse 13,” “Hostages”) as a woman who discovers how far she’s willing to go to save the family farm, the film is an impressive calling card for first-time writer-director Kimberly Levin, and could sustain an arthouse run for a savvy distributor with a nationwide strategy. After the movie’s debut in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the bees in the field won’t be the only things buzzing.
A slow montage accompanied by an appropriately foreboding dirge of drum and strings shows us elements of the food chain — establishing the thing most at risk in the film — before the camera settles in on Betty Freeman (Kelly), who tends to a bee colony, directing a few puffs of smoke over the hive. Meanwhile, her husband, Frank (Neal Huff, “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Wire”), scrubs himself down and climbs into something just short of a hazmat suit to administer pharmaceuticals to the pigs of a prospective client of Freeman’s Farm Supply, which wholeheartedly embraces the concept of better living through chemicals. On the family breakfast table: bacon and eggs.
These are fallow times for the Freemans. A corporate competitor, Gigas, is servicing farms under an exclusive one-stop-shop contract; it also buys the livestock and serves as a distributor — and wouldn’t mind buying the Freeman’s acreage, either. Despite the difficulties, Betty and Frank are a loving couple. Farm life is all they know. The kids are rebellious within reason: Even teenage son Finley (Alex Shaffer, the star wrestler from “Win Win”), who can’t wait to leave for the city, cares about his parents’ well-being, and younger son Sam (Kivlighan de Montebello) wouldn’t know what to do if he couldn’t hang out by the creek with his friend Elena (Rashel Bestard).
But Frank isn’t being completely upfront with his wife. She may have already guessed the degree of their fiscal problems even before a bank rep comes calling to give them the bad news, but just to make the noose a little tighter, Frank has been going to the hospital for tests — a movie-of-the-week moment if not for his working so closely with all those chemicals. So when the perhaps too-aptly named Scratch (Tom Bower, “Crazy Heart,” “Die Hard 2”) offers a well-paying but highly illegal job (which Frank has already told the man he wants no part of) Betty sees it as a solution. Her willingness to face seemingly insurmountable odds head-on makes her an enormously appealing character, particularly thanks to Kelly’s nuanced work, and it raises the tragedy of her situation.
Levin, who also co-edited, gets naturalistic performances from all her actors, and tells her tale with a narrative economy that, despite the leisurely pace, never lingers too long in a scene, giving the audience just enough information and letting viewers fill in the particulars. This is especially true in the shorthand between Betty and Frank, when she holds her sleeping husband tight after discovering the truth about one of his lies to her — a deceit that reveals to her the depth of his failures even as it shows his commitment to keeping up appearances for the good of the family.
Filmed in Kentucky, the picture — a project begun in 2011 under the title “Land of Tomorrow,” and funded with $20,000 in Kickstarter coin — chooses not to specify the farm’s location. The green fields and blue skies of harvest time give way to flat browns after the crops are in, and Betty is left to decide the extent to which she’ll accommodate Scratch. The film’s climactic scenes play out at creek’s edge, with chickens, proverbial this time, set to come home to roost. The long, final shot brings to mind the chilling parting image of Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” another rural portrait that identifies the building blocks of human malevolence.