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Beneath the Harvest Sky (2014)

The Smuggles of Youth

In an alternate universe, Beneath the Harvest Sky might be the kind of gripping, original, coming-of-age story that defines a lost, new-millennium generation. Writing/directing team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly paint a bleak portrait of two high school friends stuck in a small, struggling Maine town. Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) is the hard-working good student who works seasonally at the local potato-harvesting company; Casper (Emory Cohen) is the dangerous screw-up from the wrong side of the tracks who gets lured into helping his dad smuggle pills across the Canadian border.

It's a great idea for a story, and the filmmakers execute their vision well. But, strangely enough, this genre of indie drama has become as ubiquitous as remakes and comic-book movies are in the mainstream. The roots stretch back to the 80s, from off-brand Brat Pack fare like The Outsiders and At Close Range to the gold standard, Stand By Me. But Beneath the Harvest Sky falls victim to its more recent predecessors, Mud and The Spectacular Now. All three films disguise their influences by directing attention to Big Issue themes, such as small-town crime, teenage alcoholism, and the drug trade. Only this film falls so far back on convention when it should push for innovations in storytelling--or, at the very least, some new ideas.

That is, perhaps, an unfair way to critique a movie. But I can't compartmentalize my objectivity and pretend that I (or a potential audience member) haven't seen other such films. In fairness to Gaudet and Pullapilly, there are some terrific performances here, which contribute to a handful of beautifully understated scenes. Cohen in particular, looks like the love child of Marlon Brando and Kyle Kinane, and brings the same wounded intensity to this role as the former actor did in earlier ones. Aiden Gillen is also impressive as Casper's drug-dealing old man, and his climactic, wordless exchange with a DEA agent (Delaney Williams) should be required viewing in Visual Storytelling classes everywhere. Lastly, I'd like to give a shout-out to Joe Cobden, who plays Dom and Casper's English teacher; in his four minutes of screen time, he creates a more naturalistic and memorable character than the second male lead.

Unfortunately, a few great moments don't add up to a great film. And there's too much sameness here to warrant a recommendation. Were you to play Coming-of-Age-Movie Bingo with Beneath the Harvest Sky, your fingers would be bright pink and slippery well before the third act; from pregnancy scares to suicides to overwrought visual metaphors, the film plays like a slickly produced thesis project that proves its student creators were paying attention all semester--and nothing more.

But, hey, this is the movies, where (most) everyone gets a second chance. Someday, when Gaudet and Pullapilly are accepting their Best Director Oscars, I'm sure we'll fondly remember Beneath the Harvest Sky as a calling card of competence, a catalyst for their having broken from routine and doing something remarkable.

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