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From its first sun-dappled moments, capturing cornfields, hay bales, crop dusters, stockyards and barnyards, we are instantly pulled deep into the world of director Kimberly Levin’s Runoff.  We are moved from what was perhaps a vague, wistful notion of this rural existence to witness the harsh realities of a tragically disappearing American way of life.

The United States has come very far from a land where the populace depended on farming; either for the food on their tables, or as the means to make a living, to one in which the rise of agriculture conglomerates has made the family farm increasingly obsolete.  Feeling the pinch in their old Kentucky home, Frank and Betty cut every possible corner to make ends meet.  Frank’s animal pharmaceutical business is dwindling as large corporations offer the necessary antibiotics and medicines to farmers who come under their umbrella at rates Frank simply can’t compete with.  Lifelong farmers themselves, Frank and Betty find themselves threatened after turning down one corporation’s offer for their land.  Living month-to-month, the family was just able to keep a roof over their heads, however, when the company uses the bank to foreclose on Frank and Betty’s home, the desperation becomes real.  Adding to Betty’s woes is the fact that Frank has become seriously ill and refuses to receive proper treatment, another calamitous expense, which Frank won’t face, instead wishing it away or putting it off as the sickness gains on him.  There is also their rebellious, talented son, Finley, who Frank and Betty are determined will be the first of their family to go to college, whatever the cost.

A neighbor offers the family a way out, but it is by a means that Betty would never have considered in anything other than the direst circumstances.  He offers Frank and Betty the job of illegally dumping drums of expired milk filled with all the chemicals – sold by the couple – the cows have ingested, in whatever way they see fit, as long as it isn’t traced back to him.  Logically, that would mean pouring it into the town’s river.  Frank flat-out refuses, but Betty, desperate to hold her family together even if it’s against the wishes of her idealistic husband and her own better instincts, takes the work and chooses to worry about the consequences another time.

As I mentioned, the initial striking quality of Runoff is its cinematography, which is simply stunning.  Taking us into the works of actual pig farms, dairy farms, and turkey farms, we see the conditions of the modern agricultural world in a depth rarely shown outside of documentaries.  The natural beauty of the exteriors and scenes like the farmhands’ children at play along streams and in woods, makes an idyllic contrast to the severe circumstances threatening both the land and its people.  What should be a clean, honest living; growing food for people to eat, has become an ugly, complicated business full of literal poison and ethical corruption.  The farming corporation’s influence spreads like a virus throughout the town, and little by little we see more signs of their invasion; like the giant banners on the sides of barns that declare they have taken over yet another property.  Those contracted to the conglomerate cannot break out of their iron grip, as is shown when even offering Frank and Betty a scrap of legitimate business is considered an infraction.  Their control is total, and being such a huge corporate leviathan, they can undercut any price for any supply offered by an independent operator like Frank.  Though Runoff is a work of fiction, it is a horrifying truth that this beautiful and vital part of this country’s way of life is being choked out of existence by what is clearly an antitrust and monopoly dealing in unfair competition that has been allowed to run rampant.

This is only one of Levin’s many messages tucked into Runoff.  She leaves a lot unexposed; trusting the viewer to hang in and figure things out as she leads us through the family’s ordeal.  Besides our initiation into the evils of corporate agriculture and its effect on farmers across America, we also begin to see a darker side of the small farming trade that reveals itself in how a lifetime of working with animal antibiotics, growth hormones and other chemicals might or might not have affected Frank’s health.  We wonder why it is that Frank and Betty’s “artistic” son, Finley, keeps coming home beaten up?  After living her entire life in her town, with friends on every corner, why is it Betty feels she can only ask the Latino immigrant farmhand for help in committing the dirty deed after her own husband refuses to have anything to do with it?  It isn’t until the very end of the film that we even get an entire view of what exactly was so problematic about the contents of the containers, and it comes with one gut-punch of an image, as Betty drives past cornfields that were healthy and fertile, now ruined and dry, feeding only bugs and spiders.  It is to Levin’s credit that one walks away from Runoff feeling as if they have received an education, yet never lectured to or talked at.  Levin doesn’t preach and trusts the intelligence of her viewers, as well as the pacing of her storytelling to let us come to our own conclusions.  While that can sometimes feel frustrating, and yes, occasionally pacing is an issue, overall Runoff manages to entertain as well as enlighten.

Most of that entertainment comes from the sterling performance of Joanne Kelly as Betty, who embodies the image of not only a young, modern mother, but of a child raised to love and respect the land.  She is fierce and strong, yet never brittle.  She is still madly in love with her dreamer husband, the doting, understanding shoulder for her troubled Finley, and dotes upon Sam, her youngest boy.  In a summer that has given us the revolutionary Mad Max: Fury Road, where I raved about seeing female heroes who didn’t make a big deal of being heroes and simply got on with it, Betty is made of similar stuff.  She’s not out for applause or bigger things, she just wants to keep her family together and does what she feels she has to do.  I would stop short of calling Betty a hero, because ultimately what she’s done is incredibly wrong, but it’s nearly impossible not to relate and understand why she’s done this awful thing.  The fact that she and Frank have sold the pharmaceuticals that are now swirling lethally in the liquid she must now dispose of, gives her a bit more burden of guilt.  Perhaps with the exception of the conglomerate, there really are no clean-cut heroes or villains in Runoff; they’re all just people trying to live in the only ways they know how, and in some cases, with the only desperate means left to them.

Also worth noting in the cast as aspiring artist, Finley, is young Alex Shaffer, who I last raved about in the Paul Giamatti starrer, Win Win, where he played a sad, sweet boy from very dysfunctional family.  Here the family is actually pretty functional, but growing pains are universal and Finley knows he’s not cut out for the life of his parents, or meant to stay in their farming town.

With Runoff, Levin has managed to create an engrossing and relatable drama in which to artfully weave her themes.  It’s been a while since I felt like a left a movie a bit smarter than when I walked in, and a very long time since a fictional film made me angry and sad and motivated to do more.

 

~The Lady Miz Diva

June 17th, 2015

 

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