*** (out of four)
You could see Henry’s (Dennis Quaid) lament of, “Why are my children sabotaging me?” as another way of saying, “What’s the matter with kids today?”
Director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani’s (“Goodbye Solo”) aching “At Any Price,” however, doesn’t rely on musty staples of uptight parents and punk kids. Rather, this drama about how chasing your dream can involve chasing someone else away from theirs blends old-fashioned, blue-collar work with the modern reluctance of new generations to follow in the family footsteps.
Henry owns an Iowa farm and prides himself on being the No. 1 Liberty seed salesman in seven counties. He inherited his land from his dad, who inherited it from his dad, and would love for his eldest son Grant to take over. Not happening; the ex-football star’s more interested in climbing mountains in Argentina. Henry mostly grumbles about his younger son Dean (Zac Efron), who’d rather race cars than take over a farm. While Henry schmoozes Dunder Mifflin-style with current and lost customers, trying to follow the 21st century agriculture maxim of “expand or die,” Dean pursues a contract that can keep him afloat and behind the wheel--anywhere but at home with a dad whose disappointment sometimes shines brighter than his love.
More perceptive than “There Will Be Blood” or the recent “Promised Land,” “At Any Price” achieves an ideal sense of place, where a small community isn’t all innocence and sweetness. Long attuned to the details of work, Bahrani (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop”) presents open space in more ways than one, an emptiness that reads as either opportunity or desolation depending on your perspective. Henry fears letting down his father (Red West of “Goodbye Solo”) and cheats on his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with Meredith (Heather Graham), possibly an extension of being told for years, “When a man stops wanting, a man stops living.” Dean, meanwhile, enjoys his girlfriend Candace (Maika Monroe), who’s brighter than most give her credit for, but has no greater priority than avoiding the professional fate that could be passed down to him.
The script spells things out too bluntly—Irene asks Henry, “Why can’t you be happy with what’s right in front of you?,” admittedly a fair question—and takes a misguided spin toward disaster. Still, Bahrani turns even stock characters like Meredith into symbols of misdirected ambition. Both Quaid and Efron are exceptional, particularly when Dean’s biggest race puts a complex blend of terror and excitement in the pair’s eyes. It’s a scary, exhilarating trade-off.
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