When you live in small-town Middle America, it seems that you have only three options. You farm, you drive a race car, or you leave.
Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart; Chop Shop; Goodbye Solo) is a filmmaker who tends to look at immigrants in America who are trying to find a livelihood away from home. With his new film, At Any Price, he takes a closer look at the struggles of Middle America and how the shift in business models over the generations threatens the very fabric and moral pride of the people. Due to the bigger demand for more-focused growing, it’s become impossible for small farmers to survive on their own. As a result, these people become either antiquated and bankrupt or form progressive, self-made conglomerates. We then see the effect of corporate America and ask, “Is this great for the economy? The man? Both? Neither?”
In At Any Price we see Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) as the farmer trying to be as progressive as possible. One of his first scenes puts him at another farmer’s funeral, offering to purchase land from the man’s bereaved son. Henry’s passion is his farm. He wants to make it into an even better business than he received from his father, so that he can then hand it off to his son. The problem is that he’s made some morally questionable decisions in the process of seeking to resolve his ambitions. And these decisions eventually come back to haunt him.
With these impugned morals, the film finds ways of making the struggle of the everyday farmer lighter and lighter, as we watch Henry become more and more prosperous and commit even more illegal acts in order to survive. Is this lack of morals to blame? Or is it the people who bend to this new philosophy of “go big or die”? Or, should we blame the world for the demand, which results in this kind of cold business life in the simple farm land?
The death of dreams is also what this farm represents for so many, for all of the farmers who can’t afford to go big and have to close down, as well as for the family members unable to grow beyond the simple farm life that they resent. Dean (Zac Efron) dreams of being the next great NASCAR racing star, but he has to realize that he might be a big fish in small pond. How the film handles this crushing of dreams is so heavy handed and illogical that it hurts its thematic points.
When Dean has his NASCAR dream taken to task, it feels like an unfinished thought due to how he ends up not really making it. The film never addresses what happened out on the track, and while we get a few scenes of Efron being bothered by it, and one scene of people trying to help him push on, it just ends up being the catalyst for ruining his dream. It ended up being a ninety-minute plot device that could’ve been discussed better or condensed into a montage. Its only purpose is for the film, to make him stay in town and become the heir to the Whipple farm. However, by the end of the film, we no longer see resentment from Efron. There’s more a sense of settling, as he feels he’s found his position in life.
Bahrani’s previous films have always kept his characters morally sound while putting them in situations that give them an opportunity to betray those morals. It’s weird to see characters who are already morally corrupted have to deal with their compass pointed in the wrong direction and have no consequence become of it.
At Any Price may not be the beloved tiny film of the festival, like Bahrani’s other films have been in the past, but it isn’t an out-and-out bad film. There could be some massive improvements on the film’s script, but it manages to skate by as inoffensively as an average drama can.
The Upside: Lots of corn jokes are made.
The Downside: Quaid’s smile probably cracked a few mirrors in this film.
On the Side: Following his first three features, Bahrani became a Guggenheim Fellow in 2009.