American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
I don't think Kimberly Levin's debut feature "Runoff" entirely works as a story or a statement. But as an experience, it's amazing—so unlike most other recent American independent films in its style and mood that if it weren't for the present-day signifiers (cars, haircuts, clothes), you'd think it had been time-warped in from the American New Wave era of the 1970s, when directors prized characterization, cultural details and a powerful sense of place, and enclosed all it within carefully composed frames that allowed people to just be, and the audience to just look and listen. Watching it gave me flashbacks to the first time I saw "Stormy Monday," "Blood Simple," "sex, lies and videotape" and "She's Gotta Have It"—films whose many instances of miscalculation, overreaching, overconfidence or incoherence were balanced by an almost eerie assurance.
"Runoff" is, on first glance, a "Save the Farm" polemic, along the lines of that 1980s bumper crop that included "The River" and "Country." But appearances deceive: Levin is aiming for something a little bit closer to a Don DeLillo novel, Atom Egoyan's ominous and powerful but sadly forgotten "The Adjuster, and Todd Haynes' "Safe." This is a film about the interconnectedness of all things—nature, civilization, individuals, families, cities—and how this web can be contaminated by toxins, not just chemical but ideological and emotional. Levin is working at a very high conceptual level here, nearly walking a tightrope sometimes, but she has a light and sure step. The movie doesn't do everything it seemingly wishes to do, and there are moments when you might wonder if there aren't actually three or four movies in this movie when just one might've resulted in a leaner and more altogether successful film. But such ambition is not to be discouraged. It should be celebrated, especially when it's accompanied by the "film sense"—to use Pauline Kael's great description of Spike Lee—displayed by cinematographer Hermes Marco, and Francesc Sitges-Sarda, the superb cast, and Levin, who pulled a Mike Figgis and composed the movie's score as well.
Betty Freeman (Kelly) and her husband Frank (Neal Huff) are the owners of a small house and a small piece of land and a small business, Freeman's Farm Supply. She's a beekeeper. He administers pharmaceutical to pigs at nearby farms and keeps the supply company's books. The Freeman farm is on the brink of insolvency, a fact established mostly through subtle, non-expository dialogue, uncomfortable silences and plain-spoken situations, such as the moments where strangers approach the Freemans asking to buy the farm or collect a late payment.
They have a couple of kids who are rebelling in rather mild, understandable ways, less because they don't like their parents (they get along with them quite well) than because rural life can be less than exciting for a teenager. The Freemans' eldest son Finley (Alex Shaffer) draws obsessively, resists his dad's pressure to go to college to get an agricultural science degree as Something to Fall Back On, and fantasizes about running off to the city. The younger brother Sam (Kivlighan de Montebello) is bored and restless and spends a lot of time down at the nearby creek with his charming friend Elena (Rashel Bestard).