Farmer of the Year may be the most Vermont movie ever made in Minnesota. To explain: Directors Vince O'Connell and Kathy Swanson shot the film in the Midwest, much of it in Swanson's hometown of Tyler, Minn. (population 1,100). Then the couple, who own YellowHouse Films, did most of the postproduction at their yellow house in Craftsbury Common, Vt.
Since then, the low-key comedy-drama has played festivals around the U.S., picking up honors such as the New Filmmakers Forum Emerging Director Award at the St. Louis International Film Festival. Audiences have praised its authenticity and humor and compared it to The Straight Story. Vermonters, however, might be more likely to think of John O'Brien's Man With a Plan.
Like that 1996 local cult classic, Farmer of the Year tells the story of a retired farmer who's not ready to slow down. Barry Corbin, who played Maurice on "Northern Exposure," stars as 83-year-old widower Hap Anderson, narrating the film in voice-over. Slow-moving and soft-spoken, Hap's just sold the family farm to his son and daughter-in-law, but he's still over there every day.
When the younger folks hint that they'd like him to back off, Hap decides to spiff up his '73 Winnebago and road-trip to the reunion of his World War II regiment, picking up an old flame along the way. Meanwhile, his fresh-out-of-college granddaughter, Ashley (Mackinlee Waddell), is fed up with living with her folks. After a blowup with her mom about her jobless status, she opts to join Gramps on his cross-country jaunt.
In the wrong hands, this odd-couple story could have been pure corn. But Swanson's screenplay avoids sentimentality, achieving instead the kind of gentle, humanistic comedy we rarely see these days in movie theaters. While the film's first third is a little rambling, it gathers steam as the pair sets off through South Dakota.
Corbin and Waddell create full-fledged characters with great comic chemistry: Hap is an ornery bugger under his reserve, while Ashley wields a masterful millennial deadpan. Both are navigating life transitions, and neither has much figured out. While Hap tries to pay for transactions with his ancient traveler's checks and persists in hitting on women his son's age, the equally lovelorn Ashley is convinced all the answers are searchable on her phone.
The film punctures both their delusions, often with ironic visual contrasts. (When Hap touts himself as runner-up for the local honor of Farmer of the Year, for instance, we see that honor being conferred in a severely underpopulated auditorium.) But there's no mean-spiritedness in Farmer of the Year and no patronizing jokes about aging. While the pair don't "learn lessons" from each other in any obvious way, the film has its share of understated poignant moments.
Hap is a Midwesterner through and through; the depths of skepticism with which he infuses the interjection "I s'pose" made me feel like my Iowan grandma had returned to life. Yet Vermonters will immediately grasp the stakes of this story in which the old warily approaches the new. Farmer of the Year suggests there's no right time in life to stop growing.
O'Connell and Swanson know something about that: They headed to film school comparatively late in life, after selling their athletic-apparel company, VOmax. If this movie is any indication, it's far from the last we'll hear from them.
Farmer of the Year screens on Thursday, December 6, at 7 p.m. (followed by filmmaker Q&A) and Sunday, December 9, at 3:30 p.m. at Essex Cinemas. Regular admission.