Betty (Joanne Kelly) and Frank (Neal Huff) in Runoff (Cantuckee Pictures)
Successful directors have come from the ranks of painters and journalists, but Kimberly Levin may be the first biochemist to win acclaim as a director with Runoff, one of the strongest independent films of the summer. It may be fruitless to speculate what type of film a biochemist may make, considering what seems to be a sample size that includes only Levin, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be a gritty drama about a family facing the foreclosure of their small farm and the desperate actions the family’s mother must make in order to save the farm from ruin.
Joanne Kelly, an actress best known for her roles in “Warehouse 13” and “Hostages,” stars as Betty, a wife who runs a small farm with her husband Frank (Neal Huff, from “The Wire”). The couple struggles to make ends meet while considering how they might be able to send their son, Finley (Alex Shaffer, from Win Win), to college until they learn that their farm faces imminent foreclosure.
The plight of rural America has been largely ignored even in the wake of the Great Recession, due to its focus on Wall Street and the suburban homeowners whose toxic mortgages failed, but Runoff takes up that challenge in a way filmmaking has failed to do since the 1980s, when actresses like Sally Field and Jessica Lange won acclaim for playing long-suffering farm wives. Kelly gives a performance equal to Field’s Oscar-winning work in Places in the Heart. She remains immensely sympathetic even when she chooses to make a decision that has disastrously harmful consequences.
What separates Runoff from a mere slice-of-life look at the life of a struggling small farmer in the era of Monsanto is that it never sentimentalizes or condescends to the rural lifestyle. The small town where the family lives is one where the Wal-Mart greeter knows and recognizes your kids, but Runoff finds this as charming as it is oppressive.
Runoff excels not just as a portrait of rural life, but in its final sequences as a thriller with a keen moral sense. This is an impressive debut by Kimberly Levin that is one of the finest independent films of the summer.
Now in theaters
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).