Movie review: “At Any Price” an effective farmland drama

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From the May 23, 2013 edition

The farmland drama “At Any Price” completely defied my expectations — and I admit I wasn’t expecting much, especially from the unlikely pairing of Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron.

But this tale of a father and son builds to be quietly devastating, playing out with all the cheerfulness of a Steinbeck novel. Hey, times are tough.

Henry Whipple (Quaid) is a lifelong Iowa farmer, but he’s also a regional salesman for a large seed company. His youngest son Dean (Efron) has his sights set on leaving the family business, hoping auto racing can be his ticket out.

I often rant about the pitfalls of adapting novels to film — the rhythm and structures of the mediums are usually not aligned — but here is a rare film that plays like a novel and actually works.

The layers of complication tighten like a vice on the family, and director Ramin Bahrani keeps a firm hand on the wheel as things steer toward melodrama.

After the Southern-fried mess of “The Paperboy,” Efron redeems himself. He can’t quite brood on the level of, say, Ryan Gosling, but he’s showing the ability to grow beyond Disney.

But it’s Quaid’s jovial desperation that glues the film together. It’s like he stepped out of the great Maysles Brothers documentary “Salesman.”

Anyone looking for a unique American tale should see this. It’s worth the price.