King Corn opens with two clean-cut young men careening down the halls of a sterile laboratory, where a scientist is waiting to analyze their carbon makeup through hair samples. The guys are recent college grads Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who, upon discovering that corn has infiltrated almost every aspect of their diet, decide to move to Iowa, grow an acre of corn, and figure out how this plant has become the building block of American nutrition, from high fructose corn syrup to livestock feed.
It’s not director Aaron Wolff’s fault that I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma just days before seeing his documentary. Michael Pollan‘s widely read and respected tome on our nation’s food and nutrition covers everything this film does, in much greater detail. In fact, Pollan shows up in the film to contribute to the roster of talking heads.
But movies are different than books, and King Corn succeeds by using the medium to its strengths; to show us what this all means in ways a book simply can’t. King Corn gives us languid shots of mountains of surplus corn, time-lapse corn growth, and sensitive portraits of the farmers and ranchers contributing to our nation’s addiction to cheap food.
The true treasures of the film are Ian and Curt, the co-producers of the film. As innocent-eyed as the cows in the Colorado feedlots, the boys approach the questions of corn thoughtfully, if a trifle romantically. They choose to grow their acre of corn in the town of Greene, Iowa, where both of their great-grandfathers lived nearly a century ago. The boys drive a pickup truck to the heartland, wearing baseball caps, listening to commercial radio and watching thunderstorms roll across the countryside. But the veneer of nostalgia is slowly stripped away as the filmmakers realize that farming just isn’t what it used to be.
Even if you’re familiar with the world of industrial farming and the ubiquitousness of corn in the American diet, this film is worth watching. It’s simple enough to show kids, beautiful enough to savor, and utterly respectful of the complexity of its subject. King Corn strikes a wonderful balance between science, economics, and the simple but profound experience of cultivating a bit of earth.
King Corn opens in New York at Cinema Village on October 12th. Screenings in Washington, D.C, Boston, L.A., San Francisco and Berkeley to follow. Visit the film’s website for more information and to view the trailer.
Valerie Lapinski is a freelance writer and audio producer living in Brooklyn, NY.