Published Sep 13, 2013Documentarians Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly have a knack for capturing the atmosphere and landscapes of an environment, as well as the unspoken pain of the people living within it. Though limited to a couple of documentary shorts and TV projects, their debut, The Way We Get By, which was credited solely to Gaudet as a director, captured the isolation and gradual psychological defeat of a group of senior citizens in Maine that gathered at the local airport every time a soldier returned to U.S. soil.
Their feature fiction debut, Beneath the Harvest Sky, in addition to also taking place in Maine, has a similar thematic make-up, only stepping back to the beginnings of small town existence, focusing on high school seniors, rather than documenting the devastating end. In a way, it's like Friday Night Lights without the hope of football looming in the periphery, intimately detailing the fledgling dreams, unfocused ambitions and limited opportunities of best friends Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) and Casper (Emory Cohen).
It takes place during the annual potato harvest, when the high school shuts down to allow everyone to help with their family businesses during daylight hours, denoting the limitations and specificity of the surrounding industry and likely future — should the economy allow — of those attending classes.
Dominic, the more conventional and compassionate of the duo, works through the harvest with classmate Emma (Sarah Sutherland), developing a crush on her even though she's destined for college and life away from the farm. He, like Casper, wants to move to Boston, but has little chance of making that happen. Casper (born into the other industry of Van Buren, Maine) starts involving himself in his father's (Aiden Gillen) drug-running scheme, which is quietly being investigated by the Feds.
The boys, juxtaposed as an unlikely duo, with Dominic balancing out the anarchic, socially abject sensibilities of Casper — his response to living in a potato town is to run around with a potato gun — represent diverging, albeit similarly lacklustre paths. Casper will likely wind up in jail, with a couple of illegitimate kids — girlfriend Tasha (Zoe Levin) announces her pregnancy early on — while odds are Dominic will end up working a local job with limited future opportunities, reiterating the peripheral status quo of squabbling, divorced couples drinking away their limited disposable income.
None of this is exactly new to the small town admonitory canon, but where Gaudet and Pullapilly show their strength is in the details. The farming, environments, wardrobes, conversations and even vernacular bleed into each scene, making every moment of Harvest Sky possess a sense of authenticity. Since there's a loose, observational style, the actors are allowed to take the time to indulge in any given moment, having simultaneously intense and awkward platonic or romantic exchanges with each other, while the secondary subplots gradually sweep in and force changes in their lives.
That such an obvious and reiterative narrative manages to compel is a testament to the duo's careful, albeit stylistically flat, direction and sharp performances from the fresh young cast. The talent involved is palpable even if the final product is rather slight. (Sunny Side Up)