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Movie Review: 'At Any Price' -- 3.5 stars

From left, Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid and Kim

From left, Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid and Kim Dickens in a scene from "At Any Price." Credit: From left, Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid and Kim Dickens in a scene from "At Any Price."

At Any Price
3.5 stars
Starring Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron
Rated R
Now playing at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza

“Expand or die” is the edict handed down to Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), the Iowa farmer and seed salesman at the center of “At Any Price.” And in three words, Ramin Bahrani’s new drama perfectly captures the economic pressures at the heart of modern agribusiness, and, really, any form of 21st Century American business in general.

The unceasing drive to achieve a bigger footprint has transformed Henry into a self-absorbed glad-hander, a man who cheats on wife Irene (Kim Dickens) and is oblivious to son Dean’s (Zac Efron) disaffection. Life is business and business is life for Henry, who can’t even make time to sit down for breakfast because there’s so much to be done just to stay afloat.

With previous films about a New York food cart operator (“Man Push Cart”), a young orphan hustling to make a living in Willets Point (“Chop Shop”) and an immigrant cab driver in North Carolina (“Goodbye Solo”), Bahrani is a top cinematic chronicler of the 99 percent’s everyday existence, a filmmaker with a keen interest in the ways the ever-widening stratum between the wealthy and everyone else has played out across the American cultural spectrum.

“At Any Price” is the first time he’s worked with movie stars, but it’s consistent with that overarching narrative. The sense of place is strong. Bahrani’s preferred neo-neo realist approach is dressed up with epic, wide images of windmills grinding in the breeze, enormous seed processors and cars streaming down country roads, surrounded by miles of farms. Efron’s Dean is an aspiring racecar driver and, in several kinetic track scenes, he unleashes his aggression against the idea that his future in the family farm business has been plotted out for him.

The struggles of rural America in the “bigger is better,” corporatized and computerized age are well-documented, and Bahrani hasn’t made “At Any Price” to break new ground in that area. The film is a classic father-son story, the portrait of a father who must wake up to what’s important and a son who struggles to face an unwanted future, set against a backdrop of profound economic uncertainty. It’s powerfully acted and rendered with an eye for dramatic silences.

In the end, “At Any Price” explores the sustainability of that age-old tenet of the American dream, the fundamental belief that if you work hard and play by the rules you can create a better life for your children. And what Bahrani finds rings disturbingly true.

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