A beautifully composed tale of ugly decisions, writer-director Kimberly Levin’s debut feature “Runoff” takes place in the middle of America, as the Freeman family are — from within and without — slowly attacked by the merciless margins of modern agriculture, where small operators can’t fight big business. Centered mostly on Betty Freeman (Joanne Kelly), a wife and mother who doesn’t yet know how both bad business and bad medical news hang heavy on her farm-supply salesman husband Frank (Neal Huff) at the outset of the film, “Runoff” flows downstream and builds no small amount of power up as Betty is increasingly driven to desperate ends.
Edited by writer-director Levin, “Runoff” is the kind of film that finds power and pleasure in silence; many of its best scenes come in careful, long, quiet scenes of revelation or desperation. Cinematographer Hermes Marko is a deft collaborator, balancing the film’s shifts between the pastoral beauty of the outdoors and changing seasons with the white-walled, never-ending fluorescent twilight inside the big buildings of big agriculture. (Or, in some occasions, doesn’t; a scene where Betty leaves a colossal animal pen’s sterile glow and bangs out a door into the clean sunlight is as gorgeous as it is relevant.)
Levin’s dialogue can be a little too on-the-nose, like when local farmer Scratch (always-welcome character actor Tom Bower) speaks with amazement about how fast, and how large, animals grow with modern hormones — or, more damagingly, in the hushed dialogue close to the finale. There’s a lot of thematic material about the interconnectedness of all things, but it’s almost as if Levin, worried it might not be seen, applies dialogue as highlighter.
Still, Kelly’s work is excellent; Betty stands tough, while also noticing in the corner of her mind’s eye that it’s also making her hard, and not without ramifications. Huff is also superb as Frank, with a physicality and a quiet charisma evoking a young Robert Duvall or Will Patton. Alex Shaffer (whose work opposite Paul Giamatti in “Win Win” was a revelation) also gives a lived-in, credible performance as a son in the confusing twilight zone between what could be and what is: “I’m not stupid, you know … I know what’s going on around here.”
Combining the driven narrative urgency of “Winter’s Bone” with a sharp-eyed, almost documentary eye on the realities and everyday crimes of modern agribusiness, “Runoff” also finds real beauty in Betty’s world, in the way moonlight glimmers on water or the way sunlight shines through and on corn in the afternoon. But Betty’s world isn’t without ugliness, as well — nor is she without sin.
Sprawling between locations — from mini-mall to creek bed, factory farm to farm house — “Runoff” spans considerable ground in its dramatics; you can feel the crew and Levin cajoling, scuffling and working hard to get every scene’s location and look right for the film and its world. “Runoff” may never quite cohere as the broadness of some of the writing but as a demonstration of real talent — and real passion — it’s a strong and superbly-shot debut for director-writer Levin.
“Runoff” premiered this week at the L.A. Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.