Small Town Blues. Movies Reviewed: At Any Price, Blackbird

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Sometimes ordinary people find their trajectories at odds with the people around them. Suddenly they have to get out of extraordinary situations, ones that affect not just their own lives but that of their friends and families.

This week I’m looking at two movies when small-town fathers and sons land into terrible trouble.

At Any Price 2 QuaidAt Any Price

Dir: Ramin Bahrani

Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) lives in Whipple, Iowa, on the family farm. His corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye. Those genetically-modified seeds he plants sure work wonders! He should know – he’s the top seed salesman in seven counties. But in order to succeed it’s grow or die, your farm has to get bigger and bigger just to survive. So Henry’s also a land shark, snatching up any acres that come available at local funerals.

Then there’s his family. He’s happily married… but fools around on the sly. His older boy is groomed to take over as soon as he comes home from college. Then there’s Dean (Zac Efron), the black sheep, the prodigal son. He’d rather hang out with his girlfriend Cadence, and drive his car in figure-eights. Forget farming, corn sucks. He’s gonna find his fortune as a champion stock car racer.

But things aren’t quite right. First, the older son never comes home – he’s in South America somewhere finding himself. And a competing seed salesman is infringing on his territory. Henry might loses Decatur county! And that same salesman’s son is a wannabe Nascar racer, too. So he’s an instant rival to Dean. Like father, like son: a two-generation feud. Henry wants to open up to Dean. But how can he get Dean to talk to him? Or even look him straight in the eye? It’s clear: Dean hates his dad.

And on top of all this, the GMO seed company hears a rumour that At Any Price Efron QuaidHenry is washing his seeds and reselling them – a normal farming practice, but a copyright violation if it’s a GMO seed. He could lose everything. His Dad already looks down on Henry, what would he do if he lost the farm?

At Any Price is a hard movie to grasp. Is it a family drama? A grain-conspiracy thriller? A rural slice of life? This movie interests me because the director, Ramin Bahrani, made a really good, low-budget super-realistic movie Chop Shop just a few years ago. Chop Shop was a neat little movie that almost felt like a documentary about a homeless kid who lives in a junkyard in Queens N.Y. So I thought this would be “Chop Shop in the Cornfields”. It’s not. It has big stars, bigger budget.

There are some good, drawn-out scenes – the movie conveys some emotions and events visually – no talking. This is no TV movie about life on a farm – it’s cinematic, it has big skies and endless fields.

The problem is it’s just not that good. It’s really slow, it’s really long and the plot just drags its way through all these convoluted relationships. It gets exciting (or at least dramatic) and heavy toward the end – in a good way — but that doesn’t redeem the blah-ness of most of the movie. The acting was very good, especially Dennis Quaid as Henry, and Maika Monroe as Cadence, the young woman who is both Dean’s girlfriend and Henry’s apprentice. I don’t want to completely dis this movie, since it has a sophisticated and satisfying ending, but if you see it go prepared for a long and slow film about father/son relations.

blackbird_02_largeBlackbird

Dir: Jason Buxton

Sean (Connor Jessup) is a gothy-looking adolescent who goes to school every day wearing a spiky leather jacket torn-up skinny jeans, and a cloud of attitude. He likes his pet lizard, red wiccan stars, and camo sheets. He’s actually a big city boy, but his mom has pawned him off on his small town Nova Scotia dad, now that she’s remarried. Dad lives for hockey and works as a Zamboni driver; he’s not comfortable with his son always “dressing up for Hallowe’en” as he calls it. He says it’s not a smart thing to do in a small town. It also attracts the school bullies – the alpha-dog hockey players. He could just stay away from them but he really likes hockey bunny Deanna (Alexia Fast) who rides the bus with him. He’s attacked and humiliated by the school bullies, and Deanna doesn’t defend him. But when his guidance counsellor tells him to express his anger in story form, things turn from bad to worse. The police get a hold of his notebook, his website, and the short films he made on his cell phone and he’s arrested for supposedly plotting to kill everybody. And his lawyer tells him to plead guilty to cut down his jail time. Through no fault if his own, Sean is caught in a whirlpool of injustice with only his father and potential girlfriend to save him. The victim of bullying is painted as the criminal.

Blackbird is divided among a very realistic portrayal of life as a pariahblackbird_03_medium in a small town, the even rougher stay in a juvenile detention centre, and his ongoing relationship Deanna. Equally compelling is the in-prison run-ins with the unstable psycho-killer Trevor (Alex Ozerov) who labels Sean “Columbine”. Jessup is fantastic as Sean, as is Ozerov as Trevor, and the understated performances of Alexia Fast and Michael Buie as Sean’s girlfriend and dad serve as good foils for the main character. And it gives an eye-opening, stark portrayal of Canada’s youth justice system. I really like Blackbird – it’s one of the best things I saw at TIFF last year, and it’s an impressive debut for writer/director Jason Buxton.

At Any Cost and Blackbird both open today in Toronto. Also opening is another father/son drama, this one a Canadian psychological thriller called A Good Lie. When his mum dies, a young man (Thomas Dekker) discovers his late mother had a secret – his dad is not his biological father. That was dangerous criminal who had raped his mother. And Workman Arts is showing an interesting  series of short films dealing with addiction and mental health.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

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