Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

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After Winter, Spring


On the farm, the work doesn't stop just because it's winter.

On the farm, the work doesn’t stop just because it’s winter.

(2012) Documentary (Terra Productions) Alain, Guy, Nanou, Alfred, Olivier, the Bresquand women. Directed by Judith Lit

Florida Film Festival 2014

The Périgord region of Southwestern France has been a rural farming community going back centuries. When one thinks of the delicious cuisine of Paris, much of what makes it wonderful are the farm fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and cheeses that come from Périgord. There is a timeless quality to the community where farming traditions have carried on with little change for uncounted generations.

Time marches on even in France however and like the United States, a shift has been made to large-scale corporate farms over small family-owned holdings. It has become more and more difficult for small farms to survive between government regulations – one farmer complains he spends more time filling out paperwork than he does tending to his crops – and set prices which seem to go lower and lower while the costs for producing the same amount of crop or product get higher and higher.

In this documentary filmed by an American expatriate who moved to the area but herself grew up in Pennsylvania farm country, we examine the French family farm, once a very large part of the French economic engine but now on the endangered species list in a sense. We meet Alain, a tobacco farmer who has eschewed modern methods and returned back to the traditional methods. Middle aged, he realizes his sons aren’t keen on the labor-intensive life he has chosen and likely will not carry on the family tradition and the bittersweet understanding that he may well be the last of his family to work the land is etched on his craggy face but more importantly in his expressive eyes.

Olivier is a dairy farmer who has gone in the opposite direction as Alain; he has modernized in order to maximize production and make it more efficient. He makes as much with more than 100 cows than his grandfather did 60 years ago with three or four cows. He haunts trade shows where modern farming equipment – tractors, threshers and the like – are on display, many of which are too large scale for his operation and which he couldn’t possibly afford anyway. He carries a wistful expression.

Nanou is a rarity in the region – a daughter who inherited the farm from her father. She is largely retired now and her own daughter runs much of the day to day operation. She sees herself as a peasant – and is proud of the appellation. She feels her lineage stretching into the past, all stewards of the Earth, all feeders of France.

Bresquand Farm has for generations turned out some of the best foie gras in France. Unlike factory farms where the geese are stuck in windowless boxes and force fed non-stop, they allow the geese to wander freely on their beautiful rustic property. Yes, they do force feed the geese but it is something they do with reverence and love for the animals, which seems a bit contradictory when you are stuffing unwanted food down their gullet. Still, they try to be as humane as possible.

Albert is an old man who has lived on his farm his entire life. A neighbor of Lit’s, he has a vineyard which he tends as best he can. His entire family come to help him harvest, or at least a good portion of them. At one time, there were many on the farm helping out and harvest time was a big party. Now, as his life is coming to an end (he passed away shortly after filming ended), there is a bittersweet quality to the event.

The family farm is under siege all over the world. In France, many of those who own small farms feel the pinch from rising costs and shrinking markets. There is less acreage available to feed more people, and farmers are finding it more profitable to sell their land to developers who then build a housing development on it. While they aren’t quite the cookie cutter developments you see here in the States, they are going in that direction.

Lit certainly has a feel for her subjects as well as great empathy for them, given her own history. She prefers not to do a lot of editorializing, allowing her pictures to speak for her and they are some fine pictures. However, the facts speak for themselves that as corporations get more involved with the growing and raising of food, the quality of our food has suffered. While the French farmers talk about the hand-raising of food and how much better the quality of their crops are, the dots are there to be connected.

While the movie kind of drones on a bit in the middle third, it does pick up near the end as we get a few rays of sunshine – the growing movement towards organic food is bringing back the small farm, certainly in the United States and hopefully Europe soon following suit. What I got out of this pleasant documentary is that when we are looking to eat food that is better for us, we have to be aware of where that food comes from. While nobody is entitled to a lifestyle – as I said earlier, time marches on – that doesn’t mean that the idyllic life of the French family farmer can’t continue, particularly as there is an advantage to society at large for retaining them.

The movie is continuing to play the Festival circuit as well as single screenings upcoming in Canada. However, the movie is also available on DVD for those who can’t find it in their local art houses or film festivals. You can order it on their website, which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.

REASONS TO GO: Bucolic setting; idyllic cinematography. Makes you think about where our food comes from and nicely illustrates the challenges faced by family farms.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to lose focus in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES:  Scenes of animals being killed for food and the force-feeding of geese may upset the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed over a three year period.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cousin Jules

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Before You Know It