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At Any Price

Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is a modern farmer, caught in the agribusiness world between the dying stereotype of the family farmer and the presumed future model of industrialized “efficiency.” He has a large parcel in Iowa devoted entirely to corn. He has a side business selling the same GMO seeds he uses, though it seems to occupy more of his time than running the farm. Like many Americans, Henry finds it tough to support a family on one income.

That family includes two sons he hopes will take over the business he inherited from his own father. As the elder seems disinclined to return to the farm from college, Henry shifts his hopes to younger son Dean (Zac Effron). But he has different ambitions, to find fame and fortune as a NASCAR driver.

Written and directed by North Carolina native Ramin Bahrani after six months spent living with Iowa corn farmers, At Any Price works hard to avoid being what the filmmaker calls an “agenda movie.” While the story is openly critical of the dubious practices of businesses like Monsanto (the presumed inspiration for “Liberty Seeds”), it avoids the larger issue of devoting so much American farmland to a profitable but nutritionally useless crop like corn.

Bahrani devotes more of his efforts to a Death of a Salesman-like portrait of this family. It’s an excellent role for Quaid, who makes Whipple both unctuous and sympathetic. He lives in the shadow of his own father, who derides his lack of ethics but is all for the lucrative results that require them. Effron gives an unaffected performance as a restless young man suffering from the lack of a moral compass. Bahrani’s biggest misstep is a third act complication that feels like a desperate attempt to bring dramatic focus to a project that is well observed but meandering. Despite its faults, though, it’s a strong step forward for a filmmaker who has already received attention with a trio of independent films (Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop, Man Push Cart) about outsiders living on the margins of American society.

Watch the trailer for At Any Price

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