' ' Cinema Romantico: Cadence Farrow: My Favorite Movie Character In 2013

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Cadence Farrow: My Favorite Movie Character In 2013

The mother of the character Cadence Farrow, played with a charming naturalism by the new-to-me Maika Monroe, in Raman Bahrani's "At Any Price" is written off in a single line of dialogue, referenced to be making meth in Jefferson. The meth part is obvious, but what of Jefferson? Just a scenic namecheck, I suppose, but one this writer gets. I know Jefferson. I ran track at Jefferson. Jefferson was fifty miles from where I grew up. (I didn’t know anyone that made meth. Well, that’s not completely true. I once went to the birthday party of a kid whose father several years later was busted for making a meth. Ah, life.)

"At Any Price" is set in rural Iowa. I did not grow up in rural Iowa, seeing as how my hometown of Waukee was a five minute drive from Des Moines, the state's capital and most populated city, but it was definitely small-town Iowa. It consisted of some two-thousand residents when I lived there. A grain elevator loomed over our backyard (I find it incredible I can see that co-op online now at a second's notice). You could fill up on gas, rent a movie (usually something like “Space Camp”) and buy a Blimpie all at the same time at the corner store. I went to school with kids that lived and worked on farms. So while the lives led in "At Any Price" did not precisely mirror mine, they are lives to which I can relate and that I understand.

Stephen Bloom's Atlantic article in advance of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses took considerable flack from Iowans, and rightly so, on account of some its more inane generalizations and conclusions that seemed to have been drawn from the narrative formed in his mind than any in-the-field research, but it would be wrong to say it was completely devoid of truth. Iowa is "a place of bizarre contrasts” (which is why the state can legalize same-sex marriage but simultaneously erect billboards that simply say GOD) and it's not wrong to say one of Iowa's greatest "export(s)" is "young adults", specifically because I'm one of those exports. I grew up there and then I left. And that, I suppose, is one of those bizarre contrasts to which Bloom refers - that I take pride in my Iowa heritage, refer to Donna Reed as "my homegirl", openly pine for Iowa thunderstorms in the summer months, and still am not sure I ever want to go back.

Much of “At Any Price” takes the form of melodrama as filtered through the present day strains of agribusiness. The main character is Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a seed salesman whose company has been in the family for four generations. Bahrani’s three previous films, including the marvelous “Goodbye Solo”, were all incredibly minimalist, and I confess I would have liked to see him retain that approach for “At Any Price” rather than be subjected to lectures regarding genetically modified seeds. But then that’s merely me attempting to re-write Bahrani’s movie for him, and he clearly intended to create something less interested in exclusively focusing on the everyday rhythms of Iowa than in examining how corporate agricultural monoliths are putting the squeeze on the little guy and endangering a way of life. (The roads leading out my hometown to Des Moines used to be dotted with farms, now it’s all sprawling suburban tract.)

Hidden in plain sight, however, amidst all the cornfields and tractors, is the tractor beam felt by so many Iowans. For instance, Henry intends to pass the family farm onto his son, but his son, Dean (Zac Efron), doesn't necessarily want this. Dean’s older brother, Grant, has already gotten out, displaying his disinterest in farming by climbing mountains in South America and sending postcards in lieu of calling. Henry’s wife (Kim Dickens) watches travel ads for Paris and whimsically wonders what-could-have-been, knowing it never-will-be. Heather Graham represents every pretty gal that never got out and now sleeps around because she can’t think of anything else to do. To my admittedly native-stained eyes, that is the film’s real tug of war – not adapt or die, as is repeated throughout, but stay or get out.

This brings me to Cadence Farrow. She is Dean’s girlfriend. She has not emotionally flatlined, but she seems disengaged from life in general, so desperate for action that we understand why she has latched onto hot-headed Dean. There is a shot of Cadence in the backseat of Dean’s bud’s (that’s for you, Bloom!) souped-up car drinking a can of High Life and scoping out an adult magazine. It might be my favorite shot in the film because it’s a shot that implicitly captures the essence of a small town Iowa existence, a female with such limited options for culture and entertainment she’ll look at a dude's porn collection. Cadence is caught in the heartland tractor beam, except she doesn’t have the manufactured drama to realize it nor the broad goal driving her to get out.

To be clear, I am not impugning any native Iowans who have chosen to stay. I have many friends who have chosen to stay and are supremely satisfied living out their lives in Iowa, and bless them for it. But it’s different for all of us, and I remember feeling stuck, much like Cadence feels like stuck. No tangible goals (because pathetic dreams, which were all I really had in my late teens and early twenties, are not the same) and so no way out, at least that I could identify. Finally, I fled west, to Arizona, but that didn’t work. I don’t regret it, though perhaps I do regret not pushing on to California when Arizona failed, but at the very least that move proved I could toss all my crap in a car and just go. Which was what I did when I came east to Chicago.

It’s been a hyper-fast year, one that I swear only lasted 7 months rather than the requisite 12, and it’s been weird. Really weird, one that ultimately felt more static than I envisioned it being one whole year ago, brightly illustrated by finding a couple ciders in my refrigerator left over from my New Year’s Eve party in 2012 and by my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers playing the exact same team on New Year’s Day 2014 that they played on New Year’s Day 2013. What the hell happened? Did anything happen? Did anything change? Have I made any progress?

But then I remember a conversation I had earlier this year in which I explained moving to Chicago was the single greatest decision I have made in my life. That's not hyperbole. When I came here over eight years ago it was more about getting out, I suppose, then necessarily going somewhere. Ultimately, however, this place, this city, is where I figured myself out, not that I underwent some the-light-shone-down-from-heaven epiphany. I just realized, long after it happened, that it had happened. I feel so much better and different and rooted to myself than I ever felt in Iowa, and even when I'm at my most miserable in Chicago I'm still happier than I've been anywhere else. So when I feel stuck, when I feel as if I’m failing to get anywhere, I have to remind myself how far I have actually come, and that coming here made that all possible.

Eventually Cadence, in interactions with Henry as she and Dean grow apart, grows into herself. This is not to suggest that she "finds" herself, but that she is finally able to detect what she needs to be who she wants to be is not going to be found here. And this is why I’ll come clean and cop to the fact Cadence espousing the most clich├ęd phrase imaginable – “I’m going out west” – makes me cry. Of all the sullen characters in “At Any Price” she’s the one who antes up and gets out. It's telling that she does not even appear in the film's final twenty minutes when it all unravels for everyone else. The closing sequence features Henry and Dean forcing smiles and claiming to be happy men, but we know better.

Whether Cadence found what she needed out west, I'm not sure. I like to think she did. Because that might be the most bizarre contrast of all – that sometimes it takes an Iowan’s resolve to know Iowa is not the place we are meant to be.


Alex Withrow said...

Wow. Okay, so, while you're checking out Upstream Color, my homework is clearly to view At Any Price ASAP. Can't wait to see this film.

Nick Prigge said...

Well, I will cautiously say that the film might not play the same way to someone who's not a native Iowan. But who knows? I liked the movie on its own terms too.....for the most part. There are late film developments I'm not entirely sure it earns and/or pulls off, but nevertheless...Cadence hit me so hard, it just didn't matter. Not for me. Thanks for reading and commenting, Alex.