Welcome to hard times. And the world of Ramin Bahrani, a director (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) with a penchant for morality tales that tend to burden characters with more than they can carry. Not to mention audiences. Say this for Bahrani – born in North Carolina to Iranian parents – he's a filmmaker with a conscience. Where do you find that in Hollywood, where toys for boys and a snide Michael Bay-like cynicism rule the box office?
At Any Price puts Bahrani knee-deep in another ethical quandary. The Iowa farm family led by Henry Whipple (a superb Dennis Quaid) is feeling the economic pinch, but Henry is still out there selling genetically modified seeds. Is he cutting corners by illegally reselling those seeds? You bet. Are corporate warlords sniffing around? Of course. Conflict is the essence of drama. And Henry has more than his share. His wife, Irene (Kim Dickens), sticks by him, even though he's been sneaking around with trashy Meredith (a welcome, feisty Heather Graham). What's nagging Henry is the indifference of his sons. The older one is climbing mountains in Argentina. The younger one, Dean (Zac Efron), nourishes his dream of escape by becoming a NASCAR driver. Efron, who's been proving himself a capable actor in films such as Me and Orson Welles and The Paperboy, gives a vibrant, resourceful performance powered by an inner strength. His scenes with Quaid are electric. There's a palpable tension between them, and also an abiding love. Bahrani uses this father-son relationship as a metaphor for America and its citizens. In one astonishing scene, Bahrani presents a group of Iowans singing the national anthem, singling out each one to show the emotional play between faith and frustration on their faces. Bahrani is a gifted filmmaker. But he shoots himself in the foot by throwing in a contrived plot device that creates drama at the expense of credibility. Suddenly, we're isolated from a film that had made us believe. It's a breach of trust that comes at too high a price.