This small town character drama is as strong an indie debut as you'll see all year.
It is rare for a feature debut to be as sure-handed and fine-tuned as Kimberly Levin’s Runoff. Every part of the film is working at a top level—the acting, script, cinematography, score and editing all perfectly come together. But because Runoff doesn’t play big or go for the easy emotional moments, it might not stand out among the best of the year, though it should. As independent film continues to stray toward the edges with increased quirk or varying genre exercises, a straightforward character drama like Runoff is even more welcome.
Set in rural Kentucky, Runoff follows a family struggling to make ends meet in the difficult farm economy dominated by mega-corporations. A fictional Monsanto-like corporation is stealing customers by forcing the surrounding farmers to buy antibiotics from them as part of their contracts. Next, the corporation goes through back-channels to buy out the soon-to-be foreclosed home of our protagonists. When patriarch Frank (Neal Huff) suddenly becomes ill, his wife Betty is forced to save the family.
This is obviously the makings of a juicy plot, one that has become increasingly relevant in our current economic and industrial times. It is clear, however, that Runoff isn’t wholly concerned about plot. Instead, the plot is a secondary device needed to build its characters and deliver on a particular mood. Undoubtedly, Runoff is at its best away from the specifics of the plot—either while taking in the beautiful, serene country setting or in small scenes such as one where Betty and her son get high together.
This reading may seem like an excuse for any narrative problems though it shouldn’t. The film’s end is the only time the story manipulates for drama, with cross-cutting between two events that lead toward inevitable tragedy. The sequence is just a bit on-the-nose as the film tries to find some sort of ending. When the narrative is delivered in small conversation scenes, like between Betty and Scratch, a local farmer who has an interesting opportunity, there is enough tension and the writing excels at keeping the strings hidden.
There are two real breakout stars of Runoff. The first is writer-director-editor Levin. It is impressive that she took on all three roles, and managed to land so strong in each area. One of Levin’s best decisions is building the setting before she builds the story. The opening scenes are like a Terrence Malick-esque dreamlike survey of Kentucky farmland, a beautiful introduction. Later, Levin’s writing pulls a definite feminist point-of-view into this masculine environment. Betty’s interactions with her male clients are full of subtle misogyny, enough to be recognized without feeling heavy handed. These men know Betty personally, so it is a difficult dynamic from the start. They don’t sugar-coat their negative responses to her offers as a stern male figure may do with a young woman, but their familiar pet names are undeniably disarming.
No matter the quality of direction and writing, the film wouldn’t be this successful without the strength of its lead performer. Joanne Kelly doesn’t have many credits (the most prominent is a starring role in Syfy Network’s Warehouse 13), but she brings a great presence to Betty. She isn’t a typical fierce-woman-against-the-world type, by design of the script and through her own understated and quiet performance. She isn’t asked to make any grand speeches or have any big dramatic breakthroughs—that would be out of place. With Kelly’s unwavering confidence, Betty becomes the kind of character capable of holding her own in the face of difficulty and demanding opponents.
In these two women’s strong hands, Runoff becomes more than just a subtle situational drama. Levin is destined to be the next great female voice in independent film, with a future in both writing and directing. Hopefully, she is able to make a few more films as personal as Runoff before getting scooped up for mainstream projects.