Runoff begins with a series of images from nature that transcend time – a clear running brook, rays of sunlight piercing through tree branches, bees producing honey – all of which show us something that was meant to be good, simple, and uncorrupted. Agriculture is part of that natural process, but you don’t have to be a reader of Wendell Berry to know that local farms are fighting an uphill battle against big business.
Betty Freeman (Joanne Kelly) and her husband Frank (Neal Huff) want nothing more than to quietly earn a decent living on their farm and provide for their two sons, but they’re barely hanging on. Several local farmers have already been squeezed out or taken over by GIGAS, a powerful conglomerate that also wants to turn the Freeman farm into a warehouse.
All of this is lost on Betty and Frank’s youngest son Sam (Kivlighan de Montebello), who wants nothing more than to have his mom make him a cool pirate costume for Halloween. Their teenage son Finley (Alex Shaffer) wants to leave the farm to go to art school, but Frank doesn’t think that’s practical. “You want to draw bees for a living?” he asks Finley, telling him his art is “good, but it’s not real.” But Finley sees what’s going on and knows the farm can’t hold out forever. “You think a degree in Ag Science is going to make a difference?” he says to his dad, and Frank has no answer.
Several things happen (which I won’t disclose) that make the Freeman financial situation not just urgent but critical. Betty soon learns that a friend – a local dairy farmer named Scratch (Tom Bower) – is willing to offer her a chance to help save her farm, but it involves secretive work that’s both illegal and dangerous.
To tell you any more would rob you of the enjoyment and impact of Runoff, but I do want to mention a few things that make the film worth seeking out. First, the performances are excellent, believable and heartfelt without being sappy or sentimental. That in itself is worth celebrating, but the amount of restraint shown by first-time director Levin is also noteworthy. This is a story that could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, yet it’s a powerfully effective drama that avoids becoming a “message” film.
The last 20 minutes come close to having too many plot elements converging, but to her credit, Levin makes it all work, taking the film in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I also applaud Levin’s masterful use of a Halloween carnival for the film’s finale. Halloween signifies so many things: a time of harvest, a time for pretending you’re someone other than who you really are, and of course, a time for horror. Levin coalesces all of these elements together in a way that is powerful without having any pretense of manipulation. I’m not quite sure how she does it, but it’s incredibly effective.
Runoff asks difficult questions and wants you to think about how to answer them, not just for the purposes of entertainment, but for our own future. Betty Freeman is not the only person who has a lot at stake. After watching Runoff, you realize that we all do.
Discover more about Runoff here.