Abundant Acreage Available (Tribeca 2017)

Abundant Acreage Available (2017)

Abundant Acreage Available is a strange, chamber piece of a film, taking as its subject the decline of two families and their dedication the land that both keeps them alive, and slowly kills them. The film opens as Tracy (Amy Ryan) and Jesse (Terry Kinney) bury their father’s ashes in the soil of their North Carolina tobacco farm. There’s already conflict there: Tracy insists on putting their father in the field where they’ll grow next year’s crops, while Jesse wants to bury him “properly” in the cemetery adjacent to the land. Things become more complicated when the brother and sister discover three elderly brothers camping on their land the next morning. The eldest brother Hans (Max Gail) explains that their family used to own the farm, but their father was more or less scammed out of it by Jesse and Tracy’s father. This revelation sets off a series of conflicts and arguments between the three brothers, and Jesse and Tracy, all of whom attempt to cling to their pasts with increasing fervor.

Abundant Acreage Available peels back layers of character and relationships without falling into the well-used trap of romanticizing its subjects. Rather than being a story about “saving the farm” or returning to one’s roots, it’s about hanging on for too long, immuring oneself in the past and the meaning of things—locations, land, possessions—rather than in the present moment and human relationships. Tracy and Charlie (Steve Coulter), the youngest brother, are the caregivers, the family members who become tied to the pain of the past via their loved ones, who in turn refuse to release past trauma. Their lives are lived in isolation from anyone outside their families—an element reinforced by the absence of establishing shots of the town, or the introduction of any characters outside the main five. The film keeps us turned inward, making much out of short sentences and unspoken ideas, the occasional bursts of anger, speech, and song all the more poignant for the intense build-up of emotion behind them.

There are no children here, and no spouses—only sibling relationships that will end with death and have no real longevity. Hans wants to return to the farm in order to die; Jesse wants to sacrifice the farm in order to fulfill the penance that he has set out for himself. Both cling to the past as something that they can somehow return to, or set to rest, without ever looking at the present or even approaching the future. Tracy, meanwhile, exists in an in-between space—she wants to hang onto the farm as a way of processing her own grief in losing her father. Her grief is in the process of becoming externalized, while Jesse’s has become so embedded in his being and in his psyche that he will never be truly free of it. She and Charlie understand one another because they are the somewhat unwilling participants in the game of the past, working through their own desires in the midst of the demands made on them by others. Their potential romantic relationship has a chance to be a “solution” for Jesse and Hans, paying off the imagined debts and putting to rest the suffering of the past, but it’s yet another kind of caregiving and insistence that Tracy and Charlie give of themselves.

One gets the sense that there is little future in Abundant Acreage Available. Set during the winter, the land is barren; all the crops have been brought in. But it’s also set on a tobacco farm—not a crop that nourishes, but one that kills and that will go on killing (it’s even implied that Jesse and Tracy’s father died from lung cancer, and both brother and sister smoke). The past of the land, those that have died on it and for it permits nothing new to grow.

Yet, the deep melancholy of its images and themes does not make Abundant Acreage Available into a fatalistic film. It grapples with the meaning of grief, the need to cling onto something, and the equal need to let go. The film pushes towards a resolution—a kind of growth—that might perhaps lift the people within it out of their winter cycle and on toward spring. Something may still grow on that farm, but first the people who lived on it, and who interred within it, have to be able to let it go.