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 heartbreakingly 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 standout 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” Aidan 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).
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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.
The script feeds the dramatic fire by bringing law enforcement into the picture, setting up a betrayal between brothers in the Cote family drug-running operation. The helming duo clearly had “At Close Range” in mind when modeling this subplot (which also suggests the desperate-straits border crossings of “Frozen River”), and it certainly adds a level of tension to the story, enhanced by the elevated pulse of composer Dustin Hamman’s steel-guitar score. But the pieces don’t quite fit together, as important last-minute revelations fail to get conveyed, and the inevitable bust interferes with the wonderfully relatable quality of everything that has come before.
That universal appeal represents what’s so great about Gaudet and Pullapilly’s approach: Although the details are nearly all unique to these characters and the region in which they live, their dreams and emotions will be familiar to any teenager who grew up in a small American town. The cast proves just as committed to this philosophy, disappearing into their characters’ skin, tricky accents and all (a product of their French Canadian neighbors to the north).
Cohen and McAuliffe are meant to represent two sides of the same dream. If Casper is the hard, hearty tuber, then Dom is its delicate, vulnerable blossom. Watch carefully to find a lesson in the potato harvest that serves as metaphor for their journey, which just goes to show that the filmmakers are more than mere chroniclers of the life they observe, but poets as well. This exceptional debut surely marks the beginning of a very fruitful journey for both of them.