Contemporary low-budget crime movies either embrace pastiche or soak themselves in so much social detail and regional atmosphere that they no longer register as genre films. Beneath The Harvest Sky falls squarely into the latter category. Like Winter’s Bone and Frozen River, the movie attempts to re-mystify a handful of old tropes—the tragic snitch, crime as a family business—by placing them in unfamiliar terrain.
Directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly are documentarians making their fiction debut, and they pack the movie with seemingly authentic, nitty-gritty details about life in the potato country of far northern Maine. Often, the movie plays like a drifting mood piece about aimless, evasive teen machismo, as embodied by 17-year-old Casper (Emory Cohen) and his best friend, Dominic (Callan McAuliffe). The camerawork is squirrelly and heavy on cropped, squinched close-ups. The dialogue is a pile-up of mumbled, half-improvised inside jokes and high-school-level innuendos. The tungsten color palette sucks out all the warm tones from the scenery, leaving only numb potato flower blue-grays. On the soundtrack, thick Canadian-border accents intermingle with a score that evokes the circular, hypnotic dullness of small-town life using sludgy raga rock guitars, drum-circle beats, and organ drones.
Unfortunately, there’s a plot, involving Casper’s casual participation in a small Oxycontin ring run by his lowlife dad, Clayton (Aiden Gillen), and his uncle, Badger (Timm Sharp). When first introduced, the pill-dealing feels like just another thread woven into the movie’s social texture. However, it grows heavier as Harvest Sky goes on, and eventually, the movie begins to sag under its weight. Gaudet and Pullapilly pile on symbolic correspondences straight out of an indie-screenwriting lab, beginning with a class discussion of The Outsiders—which seems authentic in the context of the scene, but heavy-handed in the context of the whole—and ending with a climax set in a house that is collapsing both literally and metaphorically.
At close to two hours, Harvest Sky is a tad overlong, but its length also creates ample space for scenes that do not fit neatly within the collapsing-house narrative: depictions of high school life during a single-crop community’s harvest break; Casper’s awkward relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, Tasha (Zoe Levin); incongruent smatterings of French coming from the mouths of characters who identify as all-American, but are effectively Quebecois; interactions between a DEA agent and his informant, which, regardless of factual accuracy, feel emotionally authentic. The film’s landscape is vividly painted. Planting a narrative in it only ends up spoiling the view.