Zac Efron could probably headline any film he wanted. The star has a built-in fan base from his High School Musical days that would likely follow him from one empty romantic comedy to the next.
That’s why it’s so exciting that he often chooses smaller roles in thought-provoking dramas rather than larger ones in flashy but un-fulfilling movies. In his latest film–the insightful At Any Price–Efron plays a carefree youngster who is chasing his own American dream while his brother and his father chase theirs.
Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple in the drama. Henry has a stupid grin that can be spotted miles away and a mean business sense. In the surprisingly-competitive world of agriculture in Iowa, those two things can get you far, and Henry has used them both to great success in the small business his father handed down to him. Henry hopes to pass the business down to his sons Dean (Efron) and Grant but neither of them seems particularly passionate about it.
They want to follow their own dreams.
Dean dreams of racing a car at NASCAR while Grant, who is barely seen onscreen, is off climbing the highest mountain he can find. Each of these sons is fighting for something they want that their father disapproves of. Henry says that his father used to say “When a man stops wanting, he stops living” but in his mind, the only thing his sons should want is to inherit the family business.
The story–that focuses on the father/son dynamic and the lengths that people will go to succeed–is a compelling one, and Quaid is admirable in the lead role. This is a man who loves his family but seems to find more value in his business success. Although he makes unethical choices along the way, he always seems to be making these choices for some altruistic purpose. He’s trying to please his family or his customer or his father, whose shadow Henry is constantly trying to escape from.
Along the way, the story encounters some pitfalls. The affair that Henry carries on with a good-looking local (Heather Graham) seems extraneous, especially when she also becomes involved with his son. Also, a third act dramatic encounter seems a bit out of place in a story that needed no such embellishment to be worthwhile.
Together though, At Any Price takes a look at an industry that isn’t typically known for its competitive drive. And it takes place in a state where the biggest cutthroat event often takes place during the political season.
But there’s something about this tale that rings completely true. It shows how far people are willing to go for their own futures and for their own children. It reveals a competition and drive and presents Quaid with a strong role that superbly showcases his acting chops.
It’s hard not to appreciate the work that director/co-screenwriter Ramin Bahrani did to bring this to the screen. Even though many of the elements in it seem a bit tired, they feel fresh in this format and in this story. There’s a truth here that stands out for much of its running time.
“Am I a happy man? How could I not be?” Henry states at the conclusion of the film. Even though we have seen all of the unhappiness he’s seen and been a part of, it’s hard not to recognize the honesty of that sentiment, even coming from a dishonest man.