I never take my skates off.
— Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Boogie Nights (1997)
So here’s what’s happened to Rollergirl: she’s living in a farming community in Iowa, still trying to make sense of the world, still hoping that sex is a means to that end.
Or, put another way: in At Any Price, Heather Graham appears as Meredith, like Rollergirl, a minor but mesmeric figure in a constellation of figures, all determinedly seeking self-fulfillment or identity, either by immersion in a community or escape from it. Meredith, like Rollergirl, thinks she’s in perpetual motion even as you’re struck by her immobility. In Ramin Bahran’s movie, Meredith is at once resistant and symptomatic, fresh and familiar. Frustrated by her lack of options, she’s perceived as the local tramp but imagines herself as someone else, someone who’s either left behind the role assigned or made it work to her advantage, whatever that can mean.
It’s this ambiguity that makes Meredith so compelling and also so frustrating. For even as she has trouble envisioning what she wants, the film can’t come up with ideas either. And so she remains what she is at the start, the restless mistress of industrial farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid). He’s pressed up against her in his office, their faces obscured even as you view them through a window. As they finish the sex part, he goes on about his current crisis, his failing business and his concern that he’s letting his father down. This on top of what you already know about Henry, that he has two sons who don’t want to take up the business, one gone off mountain-climbing in Argentina, the younger one, Dean (Zac Efron), still living at home but looking for a way out — by way of the rather generic dream of becoming a NASCAR driver
The opposition between father and son is laid out explicitly: dad spends his days trying to expand the business, attending seminars on genetic seeds and buying up land parcels wherever he can find them (he’s introduced looking to buy land from grieving family members at a funeral; that they make the deal only seems to underscore his cupidity). Henry’s father Cliff (Red West, so memorable in Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo) judges his bad parenting (“You should never have let him go”) and also his bad business practices, observing darkly that he’s losing hold of that as well. As Cliff sees it, the expand-or-die imperative has lost sight of the point of advancing technologies, which is to reduce labor, not complicate it. For Cliff, the best way to be a farmer is to sit atop “a 48-row planter that drives itself, with air conditioning and GPS.”
Henry’s unable to slow down, his increasing turmoil, his lack of direction, indicated in his brief sojourns with Meredith, his abject lies to Irene, and his abstracted, mostly unthinking dollops of advice to Dean. As the son in turn resents the father’s efforts, the film follows an increasingly melodramatic trajectory, as Dean and Henry compete, debate, and eventually find some very disturbing common ground.
A more nuanced consideration of generational shifts and changing expectations evolves in the relationship between Henry and a young woman who seems something like the younger version of both Irene and Meredith. While Irene locates her identity in looking after her boys and Meredith continues to chafe against her own immobility, Henry seeks another sort of confirmation, but finds an alternative view of the world entirely in the unlikely form of Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe). She spends the early part of the movie cheering on Dean trackside, her shorts short and her hair long and blond. But as Cadence comes to spend time with Henry, accompanying him on day-long sojourns to sell genetically engineered seeds to local farmers, she finds another direction even as she demonstrates an impressive grasp of the business that continues to frustrate Henry. As he persists in trying to scheme and get over, Cadence sees in charts and numbers how best to makes sense of this world and (unlike, say, Meredith), sees in an order of pitches and sales a rudimentary map of the future, or better, one future.
That Cadence also sees a way out makes clear — in case you hadn’t seen before — the limitations of both Henry and Dean’s schemes, the schemes that have caught up Irene and Meredith too. Even if Henry doesn’t recognize the narrowness of his view, his particularly masculine sense of entitlement, he can make out that Cadence sees something else, that her skills in explaining charts and schedules to clients are valuable, that his own lack of training and circumscribed self-image might be problems. In this relationship, which only takes up a precious few minutes of screentime, At Any Price finds a way to examine the effects of agribusiness, and finds, as Bahrani puts it, a trajectory from corporate corruptions to personal experience, a trajectory the filmmaker presented as well in his brilliant short, “Plastic Bag.”
This isn’t to say that you might map directly that plastic bag’s pursuit of identity and community onto Dean’s or Henry’s, Cadence’s or even Meredith’s. It is to say, though, that the troubling effects of corporate culture are pervasive, in Iowa farming country as in urban centers. The question may be, whether those effects must always be overwhelming and inevitable, or whether, as Rollergirl once wondered, another sort of structure, familial, generous, and mutually supportive, might be constructed within.