Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Maika Monroe
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”)
Written by: Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”) and Hallie Elizabeth Newton (debut)
Creating drama based on topics most people wouldn’t find that dramatic to begin with is a tough challenge for any director. In recent years, filmmaker David Fincher perfected it in 2010 with his masterpiece “The Social Network,” a film about the creation of Facebook. Director Gus Van Sant ran into storytelling problems with his 2012 film “Promised Land” about hydraulic fracturing. In “At Any Price,” a film that makes corporate farming and GMO seeds its narrative base, proven filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo,” “Chop Shop”) doesn’t seem to know where to go once he kicks his tractor into high gear. Part agribusiness fraud tale, part father-son relationship melodrama, “Price” never gets any real guidance to define the type of film it would like to be. By the end, we’re left with a film of flawed design.
Dennis Quaid (“Soul Surfer”) stars as Henry Whipple, an Iowan farmer being investigated for illegally cleaning and reselling genetically modified seeds (GMOs) throughout the state. Henry works in the extremely competitive agricultural world, so he is committed to doing anything he can to keep his farm afloat. Although he is running a family business, his two sons aren’t very interested in following in his footsteps. His son Dean (Zac Efron, who seems to be doing an impersonation of James Dean) has his sights set on racecar driving. It’s a cliché rebellious teenage character we’ve seen hundreds of times before and Efron does nothing remarkable to let it stand alone.
Aside from a forgettable performance by Efron, the complicated relationship Bahrani attempts to create between Henry and Dean isn’t interesting or nearly as complex as it thinks it is. We have a young kid rebelling against his father during a very stressful time for everyone. Things are bound to get a little testy at times, so how is that different than any other family scenario? The controversial seed story would’ve been the way to give the film a bit more life and distinction, but Behrani and first-time screenwriter Hallie Elizabeth Newton toss those ideas to the side in favor of more emoting.
Quaid is adequate enough as a father trying to keep everything from falling apart, but Behrani and Newton add some questionable traits to him that seem out of character. For example, why is he cheating on his wife with a floozie named Meredith (Heather Graham in a role that could’ve easily been left on the editing room floor and not made any difference)? Henry seems like a good guy despite lacking business ethics, but he never comes off as the type of sleezeball it would take to sleep around with the town whore.
In any case, Bahrani proves the family is a fairly dysfunctional one, but gives us little reason to care about what happens to them under their own roof much less in the cutthroat world of farming. Behrani sows the cinematic seeds, but yields nothing.
“At Any Price” was screened at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.