Toronto Film Review: ‘Beneath the Harvest Sky’
Every generation needs its own stir-crazy small-town movie. Set against the hardscrabble backdrop of northern Maine potato country, “Beneath the Harvest Sky” offers a heart-breakingly authentic, vividly realized account of adolescent frustration and yearning, as co-helmers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly draw upon their documentary background to bring specific local texture to this familiar narrative terrain. A stand-out amid the film’s overall-impressive ensemble, Emory Cohen shines as a teen whose choices threaten to destroy his chances. If life were fair, a major studio would release this treasure. In the right indie hands, it could find its audience, boosted by marketing ideas already implemented by a team from Harvard Business School.
Aimed at those who grew up reading fantasy fiction instead of “The Outsiders” and therefore don’t know what they’re missing, “Beneath the Harvest Sky” feels like a throwback to an earlier tradition of coming-of-age dramas grounded in real places and judged by how well they capture life — movies like “All the Right Moves,” where a brink-of-adulthood character dreams of escaping his dead-end steel town on a football scholarship. In Van Buren, Maine, the dominant industry is potato farming, which doesn’t promise enough of a future for either Casper Cote (Cohen) or best friend Dominic Roy (Callan McAuliffe). Nor can they count on either sports or academics to create other opportunities.
The two high-school seniors have made a pact, pooling their earnings to buy a car and skip town. Communities like Van Buren offer limited opportunities for making money, and Dom goes the honest, above-board route, working the fields, while Casper relies on illegal shortcuts, hustling prescription meds for his drug-dealing dad (“The Wire’s” Aiden Gillen). Meanwhile, both boys’ plans are threatened by the young ladies in their lives. Casper’s 15-year-old girlfriend Tasha (Zoe Levin) surprises him with news that she’s pregnant, and Dom finds a case of “harvest friends” blooming into something more with college-bound Emma (Sarah Sutherland).
As often happens, the two buddies’ boyhood promises are strained by the simple realities that arise just as they near the point where they can finally make good on years of planning. While escape from Van Buren represents a symbolic victory, Gaudet and Pullapilly’s script pays more attention to the fabric of the lives they would be leaving behind. The film opens with Casper and Dom throwing rocks against a giant, rusted water tower, and it returns throughout to observe the various activities they use to fight off boredom: blasting spuds against the walls of crumbling buildings with their potato cannon, conducting slumber-party experiments with vodka-soaked tampons and rounding up the gang for a late-night “moose safari.”
Given their documentary background, the co-directors insist on authenticity as much as possible, creating countless production headaches for themselves that ultimately pay off to the film’s benefit. The crew astoundingly managed to capture a terrified moose galloping in the headlights of a speeding pickup truck, and later rigged a rotting house to collapse during a heavy storm. Such practical effects remind that these characters live in the real world, as does the generally agitated handheld lensing throughout. And yet, it’s hardly dull kitchen-sink behavior on display.