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'King Corn' is a documentary straight from the heartland

Curtis Ellis (left) and Ian Cheney try farming in Iowa. Curtis Ellis (left) and Ian Cheney try farming in Iowa.

"King Corn" would have been a very different documentary if Michael Moore had made it.

It would have come with swagger and snarky narration. It would have had plenty of time and budget to build a stylishly stacked case against subsidized farming. And its instigators definitely would not have put on a suit and tie to interview corporate America.

Thank heavens there's more than one way to lead a crusade.

"King Corn" manages to win us over in part because it does not announce its outrage through a bullhorn. Instead, this soft-spoken movie directed by newcomer Aaron Woolf gets its point across by settling in among its rural Iowa subjects and following the lead of its goofy everyman co-producers/stars, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, as they attempt to farm a single acre of corn.

Cheney and Ellis are East Coast-based friends who met in college and somehow discovered they shared roots in the same small northern Iowa agricultural community. One winter they set out from Boston with plans to lease an acre and see if they can turn a profit in a year. Along the way, they hope they'll not only unearth interesting parts of their heritage but also learn more about a nation that they say is literally made of corn, a crop that now factors into just about every processed food we eat.

Like many a documentary before it (Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" springs immediately to mind), "King Corn" manufactures a slice-of-life approach to examining a complicated pie. Cheney and Ellis quickly deduce that their little acre is a microcosm of the average modern American farm, where chemical fertilizers and government subsidies encourage high yields without regard for organic edibility or consumer need. And when they follow their harvest through the commercial food chain, they're even more distressed by viewing corn-fed cattle concentration camps and listening to a spokeswoman for the Corn Refiners Association extol the virtues of high-fructose corn syrup in a country grappling with rampant obesity.

Where this documentary distinguishes itself, however, is in the unusual amount of warmth it lets into the mix. Cheney and Ellis are both funny and completely unthreatening, which does not mean toothless. Like his stars, Woolf treats both friend and foe (including farm-subsidies inventor Earl Butz) with respect, refraining from sarcasm, superiority, or ambush.

"King Corn" insists that we recognize the Corn Belt's beauty and intelligence along with its somewhat self-induced plight. The film never takes itself too seriously and only occasionally feels not serious enough, such as when it illustrates one too many economic points with the help of a Fisher-Price farm. It's fair to say that a meaner documentary might have packed more punch. But it's hard to imagine Michael Moore turning out anything that feels as pleasantly nourishing.

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King Corn

Directed by: Aaron Woolf

Written by: Ian Cheney, Curtis Ellis, Jeffrey K. Miller, Woolf

Starring: Cheney, Ellis

At: Coolidge Corner, Brookline

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated: Unrated

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