We do lots of crazy things in the name of being a good parent. We’ve got snarling “tough love” tiger moms, endlessly hovering helicopter moms, and lawn mower moms, methodically clearing obstacles out of their children’ path.
Now, Runoff, a riveting pastoral horror movie playing in indie theaters around the country this summer, gives us the crop duster mom, a woman so desperate for money that she knowingly poisons her community’s air and water in order to save her family farm.
That’s why Runoff is so scary. Its villain isn’t some chainsaw-wielding maniac, just a mother whose financial distress compels her takes good money to do a very bad thing.
The film opens with the buzzing of bees and crop dusters, underscoring the uneasy co-existence of man and nature that typifies farming. We first meet Betty Freeman (played beautifully by Joanne Kelly) as she tends a beehive on the bucolic Kentucky farm she shares with Frank, her affable agrochemical salesman husband, and their two young sons, Finley and Sam.
The Freemans seem to have an enviable life: a happy marriage, an idyllic home, two smart, healthy kids whose rambunctiousness and rebelliousness are well within the ‘normal’ range. But when a giant Monsanto-ish chemical company named Gigas starts undercutting Frank’s prices, his customer base withers like a weed doused with RoundUp.
Making matters worse, Frank’s developed a mysterious illness, perhaps related to all those chemicals he works with. His medical bills put the Freemans deeper in debt. When a longtime friend and former customer of theirs offers them money to help him circumvent environmental regulations, Frank doesn’t hesitate to say an emphatic ‘no,’ but, as foreclosure looms, Betty can’t see any other way out and secretly takes the job.
Her decision comes back to burn her, and her family and neighbors, too. The image of those toxic waters and their aftermath forces us to confront our own contradictory impulses. Sure, we want the comforts and conveniences of our industrialized way of life. We also want a stable climate and a pollution-free environment. Betty Freeman’s dilemma is our dilemma, too.
Runoff is the remarkable debut of writer/director Kimberly Levin. You could call her a really mad scientist. Formerly a biochemist, Levin was so disturbed by the industrial pollution she witnessed doing her field work in Kentucky that she decided to trade her lab coat for a director’s chair. She hoped she could inspire more people to think about the terrible trade-offs we’ve come to accept as a necessary sacrifice to maintain our way of life.
It’s a heck of a hayride down that slippery slope into a contaminated creek. But we don’t have to go there. We can challenge the corporations and legislators who tell us we just can’t afford to protect our air, water and soil. Be a corporate-buster mom, not a crop-duster mom. If you want a cleaner conscience and cleaner air, please ask your senator to protect us from harmful chemicals that pollute our lives.