Midwestern DIYer Matt Farnsworth wrote, directed, produced, and stars in his first feature, Iowa, and though it’s clear he’s far from over himself, his movie has twice the savviness and inventive hostility than you’d expect from a run-of-the-mill vanity indie. Perhaps as a career initiative, the Fox TV–worthy Farnsworth is an avenger for those ravaged by small-town crank addictions (his previous featurette was a junkie doc), and Iowa traces the descent of a disillusioned young couple (Farnsworth and Diane Foster, whose huge anime eyes are too far apart by an endearing inch) as they first succumb to cheap highs and then set up their own meth lab. Cautionary tales with specks of noir pepper on them do well at fests; Farnsworth further fires things up with a murder plot directed at the surly, inheritance-anticipating hero by his own slattern mom (Rosanna Arquette) and the local sadist-monster cop (Michael T. Weiss).

It’s to Farnsworth’s credit that the obviously lifted fingerprints of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream—down to the crazily edited dope-up montages and jittery panic-dollies—don’t obscure the presence of John Savage as Foster’s reticent lawyer dad or Amanda Tepe as a goth stripper whose worldliness sees its limits in the hothouse of amateur drug manufacture. The violence is often over the top (a finger gets snipped late in the game, when another disaster was not necessary), but the underpopulated middle-class-wasteland setting, where no one seems to ever leave their weather-worn tract homes, is evocative. It’s hardly a refreshing pulse in the vein, and doesn’t know all get-out about tolerable song-interlude choices, but Farnsworth brings a smidgen of scary energy to the social hellfire, and his newbie cast often out-act the pros.

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