James Spione's cousin Lanny Ames has been running his family's dairy farm since the mid-'50s, but by the time Spione catches up with him for the documentary American Farm, Ames is contemplating selling out. None of his children or grandchildren appears to have any interest in carrying on the family business, even though it's relatively profitable. It seems nobody wants to be a farmer anymore.
Spione uses his cousin's case to illustrate his movie's opening statistic, which points out that 42 percent of Americans were full-time farmers in 1900, while less than 2 percent are today. But the point quickly disappears into a fog of family history. Spione doesn't venture far beyond the Ames estate, nor does he put his cousins' and mother's and aunts' and uncles' anecdotes into any useful context. American Farm intersperses shots of daily farm activity with straight-ahead interview footage, in which the Ameses trace the family line and find the roots of some of the problems they're dealing with today. Those problems are fairly compelling—a religious schism between husband and wife, a shift in the balance between schoolwork and chores, and so forth—but they're presented too stiffly to resonate. Spione stays off-camera and doesn't narrate, and aside from one of his cousins making a reference to "our grandfather," the people who talk into the lens barely acknowledge that they know the man behind it. The movie's extremely impersonal.
It's also pretty soporific, with its foursquare structure and acoustic-guitar-and-violin soundtrack. In the press material, Spione calls American Farm a "sober demystification" of modern agriculture, but it actually reinforces a lot of the clichés about the simple life. The Ameses tell stories about giving birth at home because the hospital was too far away, and they talk about playing outside without fear, listening to the radio at night when they didn't have a TV, and how the little girls of the farm used to stay in the kitchen with the women while the little boys worked in the barn with the men. It's like the longest, most generic "when I was your age" story ever told. Judging by this documentary, farming is on the decline because there's nothing interesting about it.