Some struggles never grow old and the tug of war between father and son is one of the oldest. In Ramin Bahrani’s new film, At Any Price, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, and starring actors Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, the war is waged in the heartland of rural Iowa. The spoils are the seed-farming empire Henry Whipple hopes to pass on to his son, Dean. But Dean has dreams of race car driving in his head instead of cornfields and that’s the end of the story — almost. Unfortunately, Henry’s greed will lead the family into a meltdown with unforeseen consequences and a pact between Henry and his son of tragic proportions.

Any film with race car ambitions in the plot has to live up to its premise and this one, through the well-crafted storyline by Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton, combined with brilliant cinematography by Michael Simmonds, delivers. Kim Dickens as the underappreciated wife will say, “Nobody would watch if there wasn’t a crash.” One peak scene with Efron at the throttle, and all the speed and heart-in-your-throat action any audience could want, is memorable. Whether covered with the oil and grime from the track or cleaned up as apple pie, he’s got the kind of celluloid charisma and rebellious passion in this role that made James Dean a star, particularly in his early work in East of Eden, where the battle between father and son had the makings of a Greek tragedy. If we’re not exactly in Steinbeck’s Salinas territory here, Decatur, Iowa will come close enough.

Quaid’s Henry has an easy if smarmy affability, trying in any way he can to stay number one in the seed marketing business. Whether it’s by making rounds with a cooler filled with free candy bars or hustling the out-of-town relatives at a local funeral to sell the acres they’ve just inherited, he will fill his son’s ears with his well-worn platitudes. “Time waits for no man” or “When a man stops wanting, a man stops living.” He’s been plying the same sorry act for so long, he believes it. Quaid has never had problems playing the small town charmer to the ladies and his Henry is no exception to the rule. There’s a pretty boy quality and an irrepressible smile that’s held him up throughout a long career. But here, his boyish appeal is only the top layer of a middle-aged go-getter who’s losing his grip. He inhabits a farmhouse of cards ready to topple.

The women in Henry’s life are little more than dressing on the set. Whether it’s his spouse or a randy neighbor, they’ll do when the urge presents itself. The exception is Cadence, the sensitive plain-pretty girlfriend to Dean, who has some rare but lovely confessional moments with Henry. As played by Maika Monroe, she manages to switch effortlessly from a winsome teenaged Lolita to a transparent adolescent trying to find her way in a world growing too big for her, too fast.

The real weight in this script is balanced between Henry and Dean. Each is given his share of passion and crisis, each facing problems particular to his time of life. There’s little humor that emerges amidst their conflict, which could have helped with such emotionally charged material, but there’s an unwavering honesty that prevails and that’s enough.

Director Bahrani has wisely juxtaposed his tightly-constructed domestic scenes with panoramic shots of great beauty, allowing the camera to hold on them long enough to give his audience a sense of the importance of big skies, fertile fields and windmills that stretch to infinity. He peoples his world with a highly attuned eye, at one moment in the bleachers of a stock car race, in another in the pews of a Lutheran church where prayer is not simply given lip service but serves its congregation when trouble looms. Praised by Roger Ebert in 2010 as “the director of the decade,” he hails from North Carolina and for a relatively young filmmaker, is piling up the accolades from earlier efforts.

There’s a distinctly American feel to this film, not unlike the romantic yearning and disillusionment we once associated with Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass or The Heart is A Lonely Hunter. That may not be intentional, but we feel ourselves in the hands of a precociously mature filmmaker who leaves little to chance and will win us over, in the best sense, at any price.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

“At Any Price” opened to the public on Friday, April 19, with a second screening taking place on April 23 at the AMC Loews Village 7 Theater located at 66 3rd Avenue, at 11th Street in New York City. For time and ticket information, please visit

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Featured image: Dennis Quaid as Henry in “At Any Price.” Photo Credit: Hooman Bahrani, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.