Director Kimberly Levin’s Runoff is a frequently lovely, impressionistic film. Not only is her rendering of rural Kentucky gorgeous, she’s able to recreate well-observed vignettes of clandestine human bliss: a husband and wife taking a literal roll in the hay; a son teaching a mother, who is being dorky, to use a bong; a neighbor taking pleasure in the quiet support of a close knit community affected by larger, institutional forces. These moments give weight to the plot at hand, populating what could be a bloodless analysis of the plight of small farmers with actual human beings.
These human beings are beset by hardships. The small family farm business of Betty (Joanne Kelly) and Frank (Neal Huff) is affected by Gigas, a commercial farming venture. (“Gigas” is, thankfully, the only truly on-the-nose reference in the screenplay.) Frank sells feed and medication systems to other local farms; Gigas has been stealing his clients by guaranteeing to purchase the livestock of these farms in exchange for installing their own systems. Small farms that don’t accept these offers end up in debt as the local economy breaks down, allowing Gigas to buy these farms from the bank. Small farms that do cooperate avoid debt in the short term but are leaned on to produce heavy quotas until they too are forced to give up title. The film, perhaps intentionally, also suggests that many of the farmers who have accepted Gigas contracts are older and aren’t so worried about the long term. So, for young farmers like Frank and Betty, neither choice is particularly attractive.
This is typical territory for viewers familiar with the plight of small farms in rural America, and Runoff doesn’t spend an extensive amount of time spelling these things out. In many spots, Levin’s keen eye for evocative shots tells the story. For example, Betty and Frank visit a client’s attic that is, since it’s late October, stuffed to the brim with Gigas-bound turkeys. In Levin’s hands, it’s a shot that is as beautiful as it is off-putting. Later on, a shot of a local Halloween festival, wherein attendees look like ghosts in their own community, takes on similar significance.
The lack of exposition leaves the film room to spend a significant amount of time exploring the personal lives of Betty, Frank and their two sons, Finley (Alex Shaffer) and Sam (Kivlighan de Montebello). The problem is that these personal lives also tend to seem too typical. Frank is secretly sick, which affects his ability to maintain his already flagging business. He is also desperate to have Finley attend a technical college to get a degree in agricultural sciences, believing this would change the prospects of the farm. Finley instead wants to go to art school (which Frank thinks “isn’t real”) and believes that everybody he knows is a rube. Sam spends his days being neglected; his main plot is about his disappointment that Betty doesn’t hand-make a pirate costume for him for Halloween. Betty discovers that Frank has been lying to her, both about his health and about how much debt the family has accumulated, and Finley’s acceptance into art school strengthens her resolve to step into the vacuum Frank’s illness has created. The movie would like to be about the lengths Betty is willing to go to save her family, but with so many hardships affecting this particular family, Runoff is really about Betty’s sheer desperation.
It’s not the fact that these stories can be perceived as derivative that sinks the film. Rather, the film’s plot turn over almost completely into Betty’s choice to take on some illegal work to keep the family afloat, leaving the rest of the characters’ arcs in stasis as it turns to focus on the consequences of her desperation. Thus, it feels unfinished: Though of course some paltry one-time sum of money won’t solve this family’s problem, the reality of that fact doesn’t make for fictional cohesion or satisfying storytelling.
Cohesion is better served by the imagery. At the beginning of the film, we watch Betty take care of bees. At first, she sees the bees as a symbol of a strong local community. Her son sees them as a metaphor for the hive of conformist people that live around him. Her husband sees them as a distraction from the serious business of farming. By the end of the film, Betty drives through the wasteland around her and doesn’t see anybody—there are no workers anymore.
The message here is important: As commercial farming expands to decimate small farmers everywhere, capitalism has practically erased the people who were once the primary symbol of American identity as envisioned by Jeffersonian Democracy. Unfortunately, the film spends a little too much time using these complicated metaphors in the service of fairly obvious plot points. Truly, Runoff can be an uncomfortable film to watch—both because Levin’s subject matter is supposed to make us uncomfortable and because her film leaves so much untended, is in the end so uneven. If only it had been more impressionistic, and less focused on getting to the plot point referenced in that pun of a title, it could have carried as much symbolic weight as it does aesthetic.
Director: Kimberly Levin
Writer: Kimberly Levin
Starring: Joanne Kelly, Neal Huff, Tom Bower, Kivlighan de Montebello, Alex Shaffer
Release Date: June 26, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.