Filmmaking couple Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly have been working together since the critically acclaimed documentary “The Way We Get By,” back in 2009. With “Beneath The Harvest Sky,” the duo are covering new ground, in more ways than one. They are stepping out of the factual world of documentaries and into the more nebulous narrative of fiction. Made-for-TV docs and short subject matters have paved the path to a full-length two hour feature for the big screen. And after dealing with seniors, and their lifetimes of experience, in "The Way We Get By" and "The Gambling Man" for PBS' “Lifecasters” project, they now turn their focus on the brazen youth who look ahead at the uncertain future. This shift in subject and medium ends up being something of a double-edged sword, but ultimately does the picture more good than harm.
Set in a small northern corner of Maine, the story revolves around Dominic (Callan McAullife) and Casper (Emory Cohen), two teenage boys who are just about done with high school and plan on leaving for Boston in order to make something of themselves. The truth is, Dom is so obsessed with the Red Sox that his plan ends with watching a live game, after making enough money to buy the sportscar he's had his eye on. Casper, on the other hand, seems to be content with just going with the flow the whole community expects him to go on. With a neglectful mother who cares more about her new boyfriend than her seventeen year old son, and his father Clayton (Aidan Gillen) who pushes prescription pills over the border for a local biker gang, Casper's future seems set in stone; whether it's predetermined or open to interpretation is one of the many hard choices in front of him. Making matters even more complicated, his 15-year-old girlfriend tells him she's pregnant, with abortion so out of the question that it's not even mentioned as a possibility. Casper continues to make runs for his dad and adds to the savings that him and Dom have stashed away in an abandoned house. Dom contributes his share by working the fields during potato harvest, making sure that they're healthy enough to be exported.
As far apart as their personalities and sensibilities appear to be, Dom and Casper have the kind of best friend bond that's believable within minutes of screentime. Most of that has to do with the two young actors, who handle their characters with two completely different kinds of maturity. McAullife's calm and delicate exterior nature hides an interior hothead whose goal of leaving town ends with a baseball game. Cohen's exterior bad-boy attitude hides an inherent intelligence and a potential way above criminal trajectory that no one but Dom recognizes. They are each other's yin and yang, and as a coming-of-age story of deep-rooted friendship, "Beneath The Harvest Sky" pushes all the right buttons at all the right times. If anyone emerges as the star from the picture, it's Cohen, whom you'll remember as Bradley Cooper's son from "The Place Beyond The Pines." He essentially plays the same character, but in this expanded edition he has enough room to paint the complete picture of a deeply troubled soul with his charismatically mumbled delivery. And a sentence needs to be devoted to a great performance by Aidan Gillan, who seems way more comfortable when he's not wearing clothing from Westeros.
The camera that can't keep still and observes events as if lurking and playing Peeping Tom is a dead giveaway of Gaudet's and Pullapilly's backgrounds in documentaries. Some nifty editing techniques, and a particular scene in the boys' abandoned sanctuary which plays around with a beam of sunlight, are good examples of visually astute filmmaking. These guys aren't rookies, and for the most part their transition from television and documentaries into the big screen and fiction is seamless. But, the overuse of music will make you miss those silent cinematic moments when no score or song dictates the mood, and there are some subplots (like the one involving Clayton's younger brother Badger) and some unnecessary montage sequences which spread the whole experience a little too thin. Establishing shots should have been left on the cutting room floor to trim the whole thing down by about 15 to 20 minutes, but instead end up overcompensating.
Overall, "Beneath The Harvest Sky" is an indie film that's worth the investment and the effort to seek out. On both technical and thematic levels, the filmmakers have succeeded in using the tools of cinema to carve out an authentic look at troubled youth, and the choices we have to make in order to steer away from the wrong path. While some of the twists and turns in the narrative will leave you scratching your head, they're still welcomed as integral parts of a compelling whole. Their leap from fact to fiction doesn't come without a few stumbles on the way, but Gaudet and Pullapilly effectively symbolize a generation that has one foot on the gas and both eyes closed, and if you can appreciate that, your time will not be wasted. [B]