Review: King Corn

Corn is the cornerstone of the American diet, but just how much of a good thing can the population withstand? Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis were searching for that very answer, so they traveled to Greene, Iowa to plant an acre of corn and track the results. The documentary "King Corn" (IMDb listing) is the fruit of their experiences.

Like most Americans, Cheney and Ellis were happily clueless about their eating habits, ingesting food of questionable nutritious value without much interest in the source of the meal. When a test of their hair (a roadmap of eating patterns) exposed large amounts of corn, the duo decided to find out why this particular vegetable has conquered the nation, infesting almost every product on store shelves.

"Corn" beings with the Greene situation: Ian and Curtis, two socially withdrawn fellows head out to the great expanse of Iowa, where the neighbors are friendly and the corn is piled high, resembling Egypt's most impressive pyramids. The goal is only to grow an acre, but even that little dream requires 11 months of attention, leading the guys to take a crash course in farming, as taught by the most patient of the community.

While eventually a sermonizing, demonizing, slap-across-the-face piece of infotainment, "Corn" is awfully gracious in the early going, following Ian and Curtis as they learn the tricks of the trade, including proper planting timing, crucial usage of chemicals, and the difficult business behind it all. It doesn't take long for the two to realize there isn't much of a future in agricultural, with family farms slowly being pushed out of the industry by corporate farms, which produce the most corn for little cost. What was once a disturbing trend has now become a reality: the days of iconic, multigenerational Midwestern farm life is drawing its last breath.

The info offered by "King Corn" is absorbing, especially in the first act, where director Aaron Woolf employs bright visual cues such as stop-motion animation to isolate the gradually changing farming atmosphere, eventually focusing on corn and where this little, yellow bastard goes once it's been removed from the land.

The short answer is: corn goes everywhere. To pass the time during the birth of their harvest, Ian and Curtis take to the open road to investigate where corn ends up. Their travels take them to cattle confinement lots, where cows and assorted farm highlights are being force-fed cheap corn meal instead of traditional grass methods to fatten them up faster (and us in the long run); the duo attempt to visit a corn syrup factory, only to find rejection and a challenge to make high-fructose corn syrup in their very own kitchen; the adventure also heads to the soda industry to better identify how corn syrup has decimated the public, sending cases of diabetes soaring.

It's a lot of science and perspective to cover, yet Woolf manages to keep "King Corn" focused and sedate, perhaps too much so when the farming merriment gives way to sobering results, with the discussion turning to the "nutritional crisis" that's becoming an unstoppable problem. Corn has come to symbolize the need for cheap food; a product once revered, now reduced to dangerous mass production, with the farmers themselves rejecting it, but unable to resist the money it brings to an ailing occupation.

Filmfodder Grade: B+