'Runoff': LAFF Review

Ecological imperatives prove deterministic in this family farming drama. 

Joanne Kelly, Neal Huff and Tom Bower co-star in Kimberly Levin’s debut theatrical feature.

An entire range of tribulations faced by small farming communities is elaborated in writer-director Kimberly Levin’s unsparing drama, recalling the hardscrabble realities of films like Winter’s Bone, Promised Land and Frozen River. Whether Runoff's prospects are quite so assured will likely depend in part on the perceived charisma of the comparatively lower-wattage cast as well as response to some of Levin’s less-persuasive directorial choices.

Just outside a rural Kentucky farming town, Betty Freeman (Joanne Kelly) tends to her family and her beekeeping hobby while her husband, Frank (Neal Huff), runs his independent agricultural supply company providing veterinary antibiotic products for his neighbors’ hog, turkey and dairy cattle operations. Her primary-schooler son Sam (Kivlighan de Montebello) is focused on the approach of Halloween; his older brother, Finley (Alex Shaffer), has his eyes set on art school, rather than the ag-sciences program that his dad isn’t being subtle about pressuring him to attend.

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Frank’s business has been slow lately, facing intense competition from full-service corporate farm management company Gigas, which has been very efficiently siphoning off his clients and buying up local farmland. Betty finds out just how badly off Frank’s operation is when she gets a look at his balance sheets, which show minimal new revenue and mounting debt. Frank still occasionally dons a hazmat-like suit to administer industrial-grade pharmaceuticals to livestock that his few remaining accounts are preparing to bring to market, but troubling health problems force him to take time off to visit the local clinic for a round of increasingly intensive testing. 

As their bank’s loan rep prepares to act on the Freemans' outstanding payments — threatening to foreclose on their property within a week — and Frank grows weaker, missing out on his regular farm rounds, Betty steps in, hoping to wring at least some repeat business from former clients. Reluctantly, she has to acknowledge what her husband already knows: Gigas has an economic stranglehold on local producers, effectively shutting out free agents like the Freemans. Overextended dairyman Scratch (Tom Bower) appears to offer the only viable option — an illicit scheme (which Frank has already turned down) that could land Betty in jail before the bank even has a chance to repossess her property.

Levin, writing and directing her first feature following several TV projects, has an instinctive affinity for the Kentucky countryside setting and distinct empathy for the travails facing farming communities. Aside from a few scattered scenes however — nicely etched as they may be in a style befitting Terrence Malick’s rural dramas — the threats faced in Runoff feel generic: predatory corporations, merciless banks, environmental contamination and encroaching industrialization just seem like overly familiar themes, lacking sustained suspense.

The moral relativism that permits Betty to betray her community merits barely a second thought and the film’s climactic scene, set on Halloween evening in a bit of forced contrivance, strains credulity, as Betty inexpertly mucks around a crime scene leaving evidence abundant enough for an average CSI fan to decipher in less time than it takes a typical TV episode to play out. 

Kelly turns in a sturdy lead performance as the beleaguered homemaker forced to assume incalculable risk for the sake of her family. Wily operator Scratch is the only other character that comes close to matching her intensity and Bower renders the desperate farmer in stark tones, suggesting that an expanded role could have led to a more substantial conflict between these two implacable personalities.

Working with cinematographer Hermes Marco and editor Francesc Sitges-Sarda, Levin (contributing an assist on editorial) incorporates the film’s natural setting as a phantom character, sometimes benign, often ambiguously antagonistic. Frequently incorporating imagery of ominous agro-industrial agents — an intrusive crop duster, rusty barrels of castoff chemicals — Levin sets the Freeman family’s struggle (sometimes too assertively) in classic terms that require the characters to submit to the exigencies of nature or risk catastrophe.

Production companies: Cantuckee Pictures, Reno Productions

Cast: Joanne Kelly, Neal Huff, Alex Shaffer, Tom Bower, Kivlighan de Montebello, Darlene Hunt, Joseph Melendez, Brad Koed

Director-writer: Kimberly Levin

Producer: Kurt Pitzer

Executive producers: Will Battersby, Peter Askin, Julia Chasman

Director of photography: Hermes Marco

Production designer: Emilie Ritzmann

Costume designer: Carisa Kelly            

Editors: Kimberly Levin, Francesc Sitges-Sarda

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

No rating, 86 minutes