TIFF 2012: AT ANY PRICE Review

     September 12, 2012

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The American Dream is based on keeping the nuclear family intact and creating uninterrupted growth of property.  Our families can always be closer, and we can always have more wealth.  That’s the “dream” part, since families can’t stay close if some members expect to grow their independence, and acquiring more wealth usually means taking it away from somebody else.  Ramin Bahrani‘s At Any Price doesn’t show the corruption of the American Dream; it shows the American Dream’s complexity.  Set in the American heartland and revolving around farming—the industry our nation was built on, and one that still relies on family relationships—At Any Price is a thoughtful, rich exploration of how there’s not enough dream to go around.

Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is an Iowa farmer with all the grace of a used car salesman.  He owns farmland in seven counties, and is so hungry for more that he’ll crash a funeral just to get a shot at 800 acres.  His son Dean (Zac Efron) has no interest in continuing the family business, and sets his heart on becoming a NASCAR driver.  The strained relationship runs throughout the Whipple family: Henry’s other son, Grant, is too busy mountain climbing in Argentina to come back and work the farm, and Henry is cheating on his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with another woman, Meredith (Heather Graham).  Henry’s only loyalty is to his customer, and all other relationships are negotiable, including a legal one regarding his business.

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As I noted in my review of A Late Quartet, I like when films introduce me to new worlds, and At Any Price provides a nice overview of life in modern American agriculture.  The business of agriculture never stands as a metaphor for personal growth (no one says anything like “harvest your love like you harvest your crops”, thank goodness), but it does make the Whipple’s world feel more tangible.  We learn that Henry has been illegally “cleaning” genetically modified seeds, which Dean’s girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe) helpfully translates to the audience by comparing it to bootlegging DVDs.  We also get a much smaller glimpse at how Dean plans to work his way up to NASCAR by moving up from figure-8 racing (where the cars go around a dirt track in a figure-8 motion and at least one car will almost certainly crash).

These tangibles help flesh out the simple story of fathers and sons pulling away to establish their own identity (Dean and Grant from Henry) or pulling closer to earn approval (Henry towards his father, Cliff (Red West)).  Henry expects his sons to inherit the farm, and that the business will run through the family in perpetuity.  But in order to expand his business, Henry has to constrict his children’s dream.  Parents are supposed to want more for their children, but more of “what” exactly is left vague.  Furthermore, Henry has expanded his business illegally in order to keep up with his main competitor, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown).  Both men are doing their best to succeed, but their success is contingent on one having less than the other.  They both can’t own every field in Iowa.

Dean isn’t just trying to escape the family business; he’s trying to escape Iowa.  Henry can amass all the fields he wants; the geography limits the opportunities for anyone who lives in farm country.  It’s where the romanticism of the landowner meets the reality of a what the future holds.  Henry purchases land for his sons, but they don’t want it.  They want to make their own way in the world (a corollary to the American Dream, since the act of building a livelihood inherently means amassing more wealth).

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Henry doesn’t want his children to be unhappy, but he doesn’t understand why they don’t want to be part of the business.  He’s a multidimensional character, one who’s torn between what he wants for his business, and wanting his kids to be happy (his wife doesn’t seem to be a primary consideration).  Dennis Quaid gives one of his best performances as he wears Henry’s big, phony smile when greeting potential customers, but can’t sell himself to his family.  Efron also turns in a good performance, although Dean remains sullen a bit too long before starting to come into his own rather than just being an overgrown kid who’s angry at his dad.

Bahrani’s script occasionally suffers from making the characters too plainspoken, and shining the light too brightly on his subtext of the American dream.    Watching an uninterrupted scene of a crowd singing the national anthem is far more effective than Dean criticizing his father when the younger Whipple’s constant scowling did a pretty good job of getting that message across.  But for the most part, the simple dialogue, much like the explanation of the farming business, helps to further ground the reality of the situation.

In one of the film’s early scenes, the farming co-op is listening to a presentation on a company’s new genetically modified seeds (because even nature could use a little “more”).  The presentation has a big banner hanging overhead reading, “Expand or Die.”  With bittersweet emotion and thoughtfulness, At Any Price asks what has to die in order to expand.

Rating: B+

For all of our TIFF 2012 coverage, click here.  Here are links to all of my TIFF 2012 reviews:

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