Telluride 2012: Ramin Bahrani's Extraordinary, Affecting 'At Any Price'
by Alex Billington
September 2, 2012
"Expand, or die." Before seeing this film, I had thought that a story about independent American farmers living and working in today's aggressively corporate environment would not be something I could possibly fall in love with. But I did. At Any Price is an incredible film. And it's thanks to Ramin Bahrani, one my favorite indie filmmakers on-the-rise (his past films include Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, all worth seeing). He takes the subject of farming in Iowa and tells a very real, very human, very emotionally affecting but enchanting story of family, work, and the lengths we go to live the ideal life we all want.
Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price, co-written by Bahrani and newcomer Hallie Elizabeth Newton, stars Dennis Quaid as Henry Whipple, the current owner of the family farming business in Iowa which has been in his family for four generations. However, in this current age of farming, the expressions that rule them are: "Expand, or die." "Get big, or get out." Grow your farm and customers, at any cost, or you won't be able to survive. Henry has a wife and two sons, Grant and Dean played by Zac Efron, and he expects them to take over. But when we start, that's not the case. Neither like talking with their parents anymore, and Efron's desire is to become a race car driver, graduating from the dirt figure-8 course he's already the champion of.
Nearly every aspect of At Any Price is spectacular, and Bahrani does not miss a single detail. From the very start, which opens with Super 8 cam footage of the family growing up, to the score, to the performances, to the intricate story itself, to the human relationships and characters. Even what the local community thinks of them, and the dynamic relationships between farmers and customers and corporations, it's all there, and all accurately portrayed. It's beautifully shot, tremendously acted (by Quaid and Efron) and honestly, very affecting. The emotional journey this film took me on was phenomenal, and I did not expect it at all.
There are so many layers, so much depth to every single character in this, to every scene in the film. From the face each person shows in public, to the way they treat their family and friends, to who they really are underneath all of that. I think Ramin touches upon so many of the fascinating ideas behind humanity in this. Not only the on-the-surface idea of corporate pressure on independent farmers just struggling to keep their family's business running, but also their relationship with customers, and the dynamic of a modern hard-working American family. Bahrani's attention to detail pays off in such a considerable way.
I think we've reached a time where children are deciding to take their own path in life, not follow in their parents' footsteps. For generations, families (especially farmers) would grow up and expect their children to follow their path, take up their job when they retire. But that's not the case anymore, and this film addresses that modern idea in a very subtle, but brilliant, way. Not many filmmakers can capture the true real world relationships of kids/parents, but this is one of those rare films that does, and captures is perfectly. It subtly shows both the desire to be distant from a parent in every way, but also the intrinsic love we all know exists underneath. I can't say much more, because you need to just experience this story in full.
Bahrani's cast in At Any Price, despite containing some of the first well-known actors he's used, like Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid, even Heather Graham and Clancy Brown, all melt into their characters, delivering powerful performances. Quaid gives one of the best performances he's ever given, and newcomer Maika Monroe (as Efron's young girlfriend) also stands out quite a bit, along with Efron. Believe it. Actors, even those who've given mediocre performances in the past, can be improved by a talented director who knows what he's doing, and inherently knows the story and all the characters in it top to bottom.
At Any Price may be the most "mainstream" film Bahrani has made yet, but I think it's a huge step forward in his career, it shows how much he continues to mature each project. While I occasionally had a few issues with some lines of dialogue that felt a bit too snappy for the moment, there wasn't much I didn't like about this film. I loved so much of it, and was given such an poignant emotional experience, that I can't help but call this one of my favorite films of the year. I think it's going to affect me well beyond this film festival, too.
Alex's Telluride Rating: 9.5 out of 10