Director Ramin Bahrani’s movies focus on people who are usually the background characters in other filmmakers’ movies. In low-budget indies such as Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop, he has chronicled the marginalized lives of immigrants and orphans, cab drivers and pushcart operators with lovely small-scale detail that gives them specificity without trying to insist that they’re saints or founts of profound wisdom. (They’re just like everyone else, and no less worthy because of that fact.) His fourth feature is his first with movie stars, but Bahrani hasn’t fundamentally changed his approach. He’s still interested in subcultures, trying to understand them from the inside and hoping audiences will be interested as well.
At Any Price looks at an Iowa farming family headed by Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a glad-handing man who sells genetically modified seeds to his neighbors with all the sweaty, desperate exuberance of Glengarry Glen Ross’s Shelly Levene. Whipple’s a good salesman, but early on we sense that he’s not a great one. (It’s bad enough that he attends a funeral in the hopes of securing the recently deceased’s acreage—it’s even worse that his sales pitch is so clumsy.) A former high school quarterback whose glory days are behind him, Whipple is trying to keep a farm afloat that’s been in his family for generations—a burden that weighs on him no matter how much he plasters on that big grin to pretend otherwise.
Whipple’s beloved eldest son, Grant, is out traveling the world, which causes Whipple to worry that his son is not going to want to move back to their small town, leaving the farm’s future in doubt. He has another son, but the bond between the two men is far more tenuous: Dean (Zac Efron) has no interest in farming, consumed instead with efforts to become a professional racecar driver to escape the life that his father has wanted to hand down to his children.
Working from a script co-written with Hallie Elizabeth Newton, Bahrani is more concerned with depicting a way of life than he is in telling a hearty or twisty tale. As always with Bahrani, character and setting drive story in At Any Price, and you can see in this father-and-son struggle a representation of two very different Midwestern generations: one still very much beholden to the land, despite the increasingly competitive environment, and one frustrated by the diminished economic prospects they see all around them.
But this muted drama never stoops to reducing Whipple and Dean to mere symbols. There’s a casual naturalness to the performances, although Quaid’s backslapping shtick takes a little getting used to. Still, the longer you sit with it, the more apparent it becomes that the actor has taken the right approach, consciously making Whipple overbearing, not to mention somewhat pathetic. Quaid and Bahrani don’t want you to necessarily warm to Whipple, who, we will discover, has been engaging in ethically slippery business practices that could threaten everything he holds dear. (He’s not so good at staying faithful to his wife, played finely by Kim Dickens, either.) But At Any Price is nonetheless sympathetic to his plight, suggesting how the modern agribusiness community has become as cutthroat as Wall Street, showing little compassion for the Whipples of the world who struggle to keep up.
As for Efron, anyone who saw him in Richard Linklater’s underrated Me and Orson Welles recognizes that the former High School Musical star has some depth beneath his boyish good looks. Dean is an ideal vehicle for Efron’s talents, playing a cocky, restless, somewhat callow young man who’s confident that he’s meant for bigger things than being stuck hawking seeds to local farmers. But although he resents his dad, in part for preferring his older brother, Dean will discover that he shares certain qualities with his old man—specifically, a nagging mediocrity that keeps tripping him up.
At Any Price is consistently gentle and affectionate toward its characters—compassion is a staple of Bahrani’s work—but, sadly, it’s also the director’s least affecting film. Despite its understated observations about family, community and ambition, the movie never quite shakes a certain conventionality: At heart, it’s another story about a father and son who don’t see eye to eye. Still, Bahrani holds one final surprise for the third act, which goes in a darker direction and speaks to the film’s themes in unexpected ways, while giving the movie’s title a barbed new meaning. It’s likely At Any Price will be the first movie many people will have seen of Bahrani’s. And despite its flaws, hopefully it will inspire viewers to seek out his earlier, better films. Like his characters, they are too easily overlooked and don’t deserve to be.
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writer: Hallie Elizabeth Newton, Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown
Release Date: Apr. 24, 2013 (limited)