BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY, the first fiction feature by documentarians Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, is an engaging look at life in a small town in Maine through the eyes of two high school friends, Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) and Casper (Emory Cohen). Dom is hard working and has a bright future, while Casper seems set to follow his father (Aidan Gillen -- Little finger from GAME OF THRONES) Clayton’s footsteps into the drug dealing business. Part drama, part coming of age story, part quirky indie, it doesn’t fit neatly into any one category. You might call it WINTER’S BONE by way of GARDEN STATE, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The setting, Van Buren, Maine is a sleepy border town whose main industry is potato farming. The local high school even gets a break for the harvest, and all the straight arrow types either work the fields or the local potato chip factory. As is the prerogative of every small-town teenager, they party and screw around while making big plans to get out of their dead-end town. At least, this much is true for Dom, who is steadily working at the potato plant and saving his paycheck to buy his metaphorical getaway car. He and Casper have plans to move to Boston together, but their dreams don’t consist of much more than going to see some Red Sox games. Casper, while good natured at heart, seems destined for a dead end. He’s knocked up his girlfriend, is acting out in school, and he’s an apprentice small-time drug dealer for his dad. Unfortunately for him, his dad is expanding his business to cross-border smuggling and the Feds are onto him.
While the protagonists are teenagers, this is no typical high school drama. There are the normal coming-of-age challenges: getting into fights at parties, awkward sexual encounters, and late-night adventures, but most of these don’t deal with the dynamics or sociology of high school itself. Instead, most of the tension comes from the drug dealing plot, the relationship between Dominic and Casper, and how they deal with their families. The kids here are fully realized characters who just happen to be in school and mixed up in drugs. In fact, it is as if you took an episode from the fourth season of THE WIRE, but made the kids white, rural, and practically Canadian. Weird right? But it works.
And all the things that made THE WIRE outstanding are at play here. Namely, good writing, phenomenal acting (particularly Emory Cohen), the themes of the squandering of human potential amidst a backdrop of easy temptation, and an setting and characters so fully realized that it seems like a documentary. The filmmaking background of Gaudet and Pullapilly shine through here. We get a sense of this town as only someone who has lived this life can tell it. These aren’t broad strokes -- their characters and our sense of the town are built up of a mosaic of granular details, whether it is shots of conveyor belts of potatoes, plenty of local color, or two characters just sitting in a car talking. Though one of the points is to convey an overarching sense of ennui, each of the individual details is interesting. They give the characters space to breathe, and (most of the time) the actors a chance to fully define their characters through a range of emotions. If you only know Aidan Gillen from GAME OF THRONES, you are in for a treat. He’s no father of the year, but neither is he a total slimeball. Most importantly, he has more room here to really act. But the really meaty part is Casper. Here Emory Cohen nails it with a realistic performance of a teenager running the emotional gamut of high school.
If I have to nitpick, there are a few things that could be improved a bit about BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY. The pretentious title for one. And sometimes the writer/directors can kind of knock you on the head with symbolism. Less of a problem than a wasted opportunity, a few characters (particularly every parent except Casper’s dad), get short shrift. Carrie Preston (Arlene on TRUE BLOOD) is criminally underused in what amounts to a cameo appearance. Still, these are minor gripes. All-in-all, BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY is intelligent, adult, indie filmmaking, and well worth your time. I’m looking forward to the next projects from the writer-director duo, and young star Emory Cohen.