At Any Price Opens Fri., May 17 at Pacific Place and Sundance

At Any Price

Opens Fri., May 17 at Pacific Place and Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 105 minutes.

The cycle of teeny-bop pop stars is so short these days that Zac Efron now almost seems a relic. Didn’t he star in those Beach Party movies with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon? To his credit, however, he’s been picking decent film projects—like working with Ramin Bahrani, the director of Chop Shop and Man Push Cart. Bahrani, an American of Iranian heritage, is a new-school neorealist, intent on the downtrodden yet resilient among us—those who haven’t been blessed with looks and luck, like Efron.

In rural Iowa, Dean (Efron) is desperate to get off the farm and away from his overbearing father Henry (Dennis Quaid). And Henry is desperate to stay ahead in the seed-sales business, which is far more valuable than his family farm. Both are cogs in big-money systems: Dean needs to pay for a ride in the NASCAR farm leagues, and Henry’s hawking genetically modified (or GMO) seeds, their patents strictly controlled by a huge agribusiness cartel. “Expand or die” is Henry’s motto, as he seeks to amass more land, which he farms in an air-conditioned, GPS-controlled tractor, checking commodity prices on his BlackBerry.

Along with Henry’s neglected wife (Kim Dickens) and mistress (Heather Graham), the family conflicts and plot elements are way too familiar. The ever-solid Quaid strains to be Lomanesque, but the writing isn’t there. Bahrani has an admirable, naturalistic feel for the burden of his characters, only he grants them no expression. At Any Price achieves an earnest kind of catharsis by the end, but it never sings.

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