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Review: The Fictional ‘Runoff’ Rings Truer Than Most Big Ag Documentaries

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Steve Allen once said that after tragedy comes comedy. As far as the ongoing tragedy of agribusiness goes, the aphorism could be tweaked to "after documentary comes drama." The creepy-crawly crumminess of industrial farming has been well-known and thoroughly exposed through a full slate of documentaries. Some focus on (supposed) dangers of GMOs to human health (GMO OMG); others on the squeeze large companies put on smaller farmers (Food Inc.), and others on the horrors inflicted upon livestock (Meat the Truth). Change has certainly come, but it has been stunted. Chipotle, and a few other chains, have eliminated GMOs from their supply chains. (Controversially and perhaps misguidedly, it turns out.) But we're still a nation who wants to eat cheap meat and milk and to hell with the rest. And as long as that's true, we can eat at the margins of Big Ag but never attack its main body. Documentaries are like vegetarian restaurants. If you're there, you're already sold. Drama, on the other hand, is veggie-forward cooking. You might just win a few souls over.

Documentaries are like vegetarian restaurants. Drama, on the other hand, is veggie-forward cooking.

An early entrant in the agribusiness drama genre is Runoff, written and directed by Kimberly Levin, a biochemist in a former life whose research into hydroxy-methyl-phytochelatin is now in chemistry textbooks. The story concerns the four members of the Freeman clan, farmers in Kentucky. Yes, the surname is egregiously symbolic but again, so was Walter White's. Matriarch Betty (Joanne Kelly from Hostages) is Rosetti-beautiful and hard-flinted. Her bone-and-flesh husband Frank (Neal Huff) is a small-time agrichemical seller who peddles antibiotics and pesticides to turkey, pig, and corn farmers. There are two Freeman boys. The eldest, Finley, is a talented misfit artist played by the compellingly opaque Alex Shaffer (Win Win); his younger brother is a small angel child named Sam (played by Kivlighan de Montebello, the grandson of Philip de Montebello!).

Like the best dramas, Runoff introduces the characters to a situation then gently lets the consequences sink in. (This cleverly mimics the definition of runoff.) Levin's fastidiousness, more than any particular chemical knowledge, might be where her scientific training serves the film best. She doesn't introduce extraneous and polluting narrative elements into the experiment. Just let the agents react. The experiment itself is the stuff of thousands of dramas: What decisions do basically good people make when put under incredible financial and familial stress? Who or what bears the burden? And since this is an agribusiness horror flick, the stress is imposed by a Monsanto body double dubbed GiGas.

What decisions do basically good people make when put under incredible financial and familial stress?

Since GiGas both sells the agrochemicals and contracts with farmers to purchase their product (be it hogs or milk), the company holds complete control over the farmers. This leaves free agents like Frank — no saint to begin with, since he's also dealing in this toxic mess — almost completely boxed out. (It also, of course, provides little incentive for the farmer to ensure the safety and quality of his product, since it will be purchased regardless.)

So Frank's stressed. He's sick, secretly, most likely from the chemicals he sells. Finley is called a freak and picked on by redneck townsfolk. He gets into the Art Institute of New York but can't make tuition. Sam is neglected. And Betty is nearly drawn and quartered by the competing obligations. When the opportunity comes along for some quick cash — by illegally dumping some expired pesticides from a farmer whose business they're trying to win — she takes it. This is the inexorable misdeed but it felt inevitable all along, and therein lies the power of Runoff. Who wouldn't dump a few barrels of pesticides into a little river to save one's house, one's husband, to send one's kid to college?

Refreshingly, the film isn't shrill or shouty. GMOs aren't the bogeyman, so easily demonized. Instead, the realities of modern farming, the reliance on pesticides and antibiotics, the economics of scale, the difficulties of home ownership, health care, and education all create battle formation against human happiness. Brutal, but gentle, too — and true.

The film is at once modest and far reaching. Modest in the sense that it is in no way extraordinary and far-reaching for the same reason. It unfolds slowly in scenes pregnant with meaning but not aggressively pushing it, in a world so familiar and true it's not hard to imagine oneself walking among the cornfields or into the All World grocery store. This quiet spirit is a credit to Levin, for the temptation to make this a quickly moving horror flick must have been strong. But the film would have felt less real. And therefore, less powerful.

How ironic that documentary fails to engender the same depth of feeling as fiction. We are less sympathetic to subjects than we are to characters. Inevitably, real life rarely affords the camera access to the moments that move the drama along. But drama connects the dots, harvests from abstraction digestible truths. If this movie doesn't make you consider the consequences of commodity beef and 99 cent cartons of milk, nothing ever will.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Runoff is currently screening at select theaters nationwide.