Beneath the Harvest Sky: Toronto Review

Plot-driven adult problems get in the way of the psychology of a youthful friendship in this border town-set indie.

The fiction feature debut of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly stars up-and-comers Emory Cohen and Callan McAuliffe as well as Aidan Gillen.

TORONTO -- Two teens from a border town in Maine stick with each other through thick and thin in Beneath the Harvest Sky, the feature fiction debut of documentary directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly.

The rock-solid bond between the film’s two drifting 17-year-olds -- impressively embodied by New York-born Emory Cohen (Bradley Cooper’s son in The Place Beyond the Pines) and Australian thespian Callan McAuliffe (the young Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby) -- is the film’s undeniable highlight but the true depth of their friendship crystallizes quite late and is too often obscured by a subplot involving minor characters caught up in a cross-border drug running operation.

Nonetheless, this is an impressively mounted indie that should be able to land a distribution deal, at least for a VOD release and perhaps limited theatrical exposure. It should also put writer-directors Gaudet and Pullapilly on the map as promising young talents.

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Casper (Cohen) and Dominic (McAuliffe) are best buds in Van Buren, Maine, a tiny village on the border with New Brunswick that’s surrounded by potato fields. It’s harvest break and Casper’s got to deal with the unexpected pregnancy of his 15-year-old girlfriend, Tasha (Zoe Levin), while Dom works for a potato farmer in order to save money for a red sports car he’s been desperate to buy so he can get out of there. In the fields, he becomes “harvest friends” with Emma (Sarah Sutherland, Kiefer’s daughter), who’s already looking at colleges out of state, further suggesting all the youngsters can’t wait to leave this place. (Though the film’s co-directed and co-written by a woman, the ladies are strictly seen from a somewhat reductive male perspective.)

Casper’s a hothead and has no scruples about doing things that aren't technically legal but he's also someone who’s fiercely loyal, and his sense of responsibility toward Tasha and their upcoming baby is unwavering even if he’s not quite sure Tasha’s the right person for him. He’s also someone who doesn’t like to talk much, not even with Dom, who’s more forthcoming about his adventures with Emma.

A couple of scenes in which the two discuss their private lives in a car rank among the strongest in the film, though they come quite late into the proceedings. Like a scene in which Casper pummels a man who started arguing with Dom, they illustrate the deep bond the boys share, and Gaudet and Pullapilly manage to suggest that the rapport of these two small-town youngsters is extremely touching and comes from a place of vulnerability without ever compromising the boys’ tough-dude credentials.

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But it takes the film a while to provide these insights, as the first couple of reels are needed to introduce several other people, including Casper’s good-for-nothing old man, Clayton (Irish actor Aidan Gillen, from Game of Thrones), a small-time crook involved in smuggling Canadian drugs into the U.S., and Casper’s uncle (Timm Sharp), who helps out Clayton but also accuses him of having “trust issues.”

The story of these adult males is all surface plot and no psychological depth, and Gaudet and Pullapilly seem unsure how to connect their story of a close friendship between teenagers on the brink of adulthood with their yarn about adult losers in the same place -- a destiny the kids seem headed for unless they succeed in getting out of there. This results in both occasionally on-the-nose dialog that drives home the point too obviously and edits that awkwardly cut from character moments to plot-driven scenes and vice versa, rather than trying to gently advance both at the same time.

That said, and no doubt drawing on their documentary background, the film offers a solid sense of place (though a little more French would have been even more accurate in this heavily Francophone border town) and Gaudet and Pullapilly expertly use the jittery camerawork of Steven Calitri to infuse the proceedings with a nervy energy and to suggest, mainly through impeccably composed, extreme closeups, how both the place and the boys’ respective situations can at times feel too confining and almost claustrophobic.

A generous helping of the indie-rock score and songs of Dustin Hamman (aka Run On Sentence) coats too much of the film in music, which isn’t really necessary since the young leads are perfectly capable of suggesting nuance and emotion without the help of the faux-grungy songs on the soundtrack.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)

Production company: Sunny Side Up Films

Cast: Emory Cohen, Callan McAuliffe, Aidan Gillen, Timm Sharp, Sarah Sutherland, Zoe Levin, W. Earl Brown, David Denman, Carrie Preston, Carla Gallo, Delaney Williams, Josh Mostel, Timothy Simons, Joe Cobden

Writer-Directors: Aron Gaudet, Gita Pullapilly

Producers: Aron Gaudet, Gita Pullapilly, Kavita Pullapilly

Executive producer: Allison Jones

Director of photography: Steven Calitri

Production designer: Michael Bricker

Music: Dustin Hamman

Editor: Aron Gaudet

Sales: Paradigm

No rating, 117 minutes.