TORONTO -- In another example of the upside-down world celebrities can create at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was Zac Efron who attracted huge crowds of mostly young women to the Princess of Wales Theater for the Sunday premiere of the new film by Ramin Bahrani, director of “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo.” Not exactly the filmmaker’s usual demo, as Bahrani himself said onstage while introducing the film with his producers: “You don’t care about any of us, I know it,” acknowledging that the delighted ladies were really there to see Efron.
As soon as the one-time “High School Musical” star took the stage with fellow cast members, including Dennis Quaid, a squeal of “I love you, Zac Efron!” came from the audience, to which he playfully responded “I love you back!”
With his upcoming starring role in Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” and his work in Bahrani’s drama, Efron’s recent career clearly has taken an indie turn. “At Any Price” is a rich, layered story about the current state of American values, with Bahrani comparing the film in his introduction to “Death Of A Salesman,” adding, “One of the things I love about Bruce Springsteen or John Steinbeck or Arthur Miller: They love America, you can feel it in their work. But they are also not afraid to criticize it. That’s something I hope we’re doing in this film.”
The film stars Quaid as Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer and seed salesman, struggling to hold both his business and his family together. He wants the family farm to go to one of his sons, but they have other plans. One is traveling the world, while the other (Efron) has dreams of making it as an auto racer. The tension between generations pushes Henry into some questionable business decisions that ripple out into greater consequences than he could have ever imagined.
Bahrani spent some six months with co-writer Haillie Elizabeth Newton living among Iowa farmers as research for the film.
“Like a lot of people, I wanted to know where my food comes from,” Bahrani said after the screening, “and to know about that you have to go to Iowa because that’s where corn comes from.
“All the farmers kept saying ‘expand or die,’ ‘get big or get out,’ ” he said, “and I wanted to know what happens when you value that idea more than your community or your family or yourself even. What would happen to this family and more specifically to the soul of this man? I feel this obsession with expansion and this obsession with money and succeeding has warped us, and Dennis’ soul is calcified, petrified somehow and in the course of the film I wanted this petrifaction to crack and I wanted to see that there was a man there.”
Sony Pictures Classics will release the film early next year, with the Sunday night screening completing its circuit of the festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride, Colo., and now Toronto. Near the end of the Q&A; a question came from one of the young Efron fans in the audience as to why there was no clear resolution at the end of the film.
“When I look around the world I see people getting away with it. And they’re dancing on top of you,” said Bahrani. “And I didn’t think it makes a lot of sense. This man is haunted by it. And I’m not sure who else is. And I don’t know what happened to the world that this is acceptable, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. So I’m asking you what is the resolution. And that’s up to your generation.”
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