It’s “The Place Beyond the Potatoes” – and that’s not a criticism.
Though it has its share of clichés and the obligatory scenarios one might expect from a coming-of-age story, “Beneath the Harvest Sky” is not your typical parable about teenagers making the right – or wrong – choices. Set in the small Canada-adjacent town of Van Buren, Maine, where the potato harvest is the primary source of revenue, the film follows 17-year-old best friends Casper (Emory Cohen, “The Place Beyond the Pines”) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe, “The Great Gatsby”) who share in their desperation to get the hell out of Dodge and move to Boston.
Dominic, a relatively straight-edged kid, works after school in the potato fields, saving up for a used candy-apple red Corvette and hoping to make good girl Emma (Sarah Sutherland) a more permanent part of his life. Casper, a contemporary Rebel Without a Cause-type (notably toned-down from his almost unbearably caricaturesque but similar-on-paper role in “Pines”), turns to his father Clayton (Aidan Gillen, “Game of Thrones”), a sleazy but clever pharmaceutical smuggler, to make cash to support himself and his pregnant 15-year-old girlfriend Tasha (Zoe Levin).
Writing/directing couple Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly seem to segue effortlessly from the realm of documentaries into that of the feature-length narrative. Like “Hide Your Smiling Faces” earlier this year, the film has a naturalistic quality about it, realistic and unevenly paced like things might transpire in real-life. The film’s imperfections, purposeful or otherwise, often make it more engaging .
The cast keep the pieces together, even if they don’t fit perfectly. Cohen and McAuliffe are believable as two kids who are prematurely thrust into adulthood in an unforgiving environment, and who ultimately approach their problems in very different ways while maintaining a steadfast loyalty to one another (Casper takes out his frustrations on a kid at a party who threatens Dominic, and Dominic helps Casper track down his uncle on a drug run).
There’s nary an adult role model to be found, save Dominic’s mom, who is too consumed with work to be around much. In addition to Gillen’s Clayton, whose easily influenced brother Badger (Timm Sharp) does a lot of his grunt work, most of the grown-up characters emerge as criminals or drug addicts, or at best, negligent deadbeats, like Casper’s mom (a fleeting appearance by the brilliant Carrie Preston of “The Good Wife”), who Clayton constantly refers to as the most unmentionable of unmentionable c-words to Casper.
Direct and unsparing, vacillating between dry and emotional, “Beneath the Harvest Sky” has enough gristle around its edges to be compared to grungy backwoods crime dramas like last year’s “Out of the Furnace” and this year’s “Joe”. And while as a whole, it might better be described as convincing than compelling, the film has plenty to say about circumstances and consequences. The filmmakers, like with their documentaries, know a lot about their chosen setting, and cinematographer Steven Capitano Calitri’s unfiltered visuals paint a serene picture juxtaposed with the dark canvas of a struggling local economy. If it seems meandering, it’s because Gaudet and Pullapilly are clearly marching to the beat of their own drum, allowing the story to move forward without hitting every formulaic pit-stop, despite a rather predictable tragedy. One way or another, the emotional investment given by up-and-comers Cohen and McAuliffe is more than enough to keep fans of any of the aforementioned films engaged, even at a slightly distended 116 minutes.
“Beneath the Harvest Sky” is available on VOD and in theaters in select cities.