Wednesday, April 23, 2014

TRIBECA FEST: Beneath the Harvest Sky

My Tribeca Film Festival experience came to a close today with a VOD screening of "Beneath the Harvest Sky". Here are my thoughts on this moody teen drama:

Adolescence can be such a formative time in a person's life that it's no surprise that so many films have been dedicated to these years. Especially in the indie world it provides an easy platform to craft a dramatic story. Tales of growing up, friendship, romance and general "fitting in" have contributed some of the most significant films throughout history. In "Beneath the Harvest Sky" then, directing duo Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly seek to join this club with their debut narrative feature. The film tackles all of these themes and then some, which in retrospect seems like a misguided decision.

The film opens by introducing us to our focal characters Casper (Emory Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe). They are best friends and seem like your typical angsty teenagers. They dream of escaping their small town in Maine for a more exciting life in Boston. Despite this common goal however, their means of getting the financial capital to do so are distinctly different. Casper decides to work with his father to smuggle drugs into Canada, while Dominic prefers good old fashioned hard work in the form of working in the potato harvest.

Their contrasting vocations clearly reflect a pair of opposite personalities, but somehow they manage to find common ground. Indeed, Dominic turns out to be the more upstanding citizen of the two, while Casper is the rebellious, wayward soul. These distinctions manifest themselves in the plot dynamics too, as if to put a finer point on the characterizations. Dominic's standalone scenes are earthy, introspective and convey an almost virginal innocence. Casper's life on the other hand, conveys rugged masculinity and carnal desires.

These different tones are fine on their own, but they too often end up clashing. Though their lives are intertwined, the boys have their own microcosms of characters and subplots that seem to portray 2 different films vying for your attention. For Dominic, it's a more straightforward coming of age story with a summer fling, while Casper's story wouldn't feel out of place in a gritty urban setting (pregnant teen girlfriend, drugs and crime). It's a challenge to balance the two and this pair of writer-directors definitely struggle to make it work.

As I've already pointed out though, the separate storylines have their own merit if considered separately. Throughout the film there are some nice moments that reach for poignancy and they mostly succeed. However, they come with a constant nagging feeling of familiarity. The thematic concepts and plot elements seem influenced by other recent films of the same ilk, whether this was deliberate or not. Unfortunately, they aren't handled with anywhere near the amount of skill and grace. The rare attempts at eloquent dialogue feel particularly put-on considering how the characters are presented. You're likely to wish you were watching something like "The Spectacular Now" or "The Place Beyond the Pines" instead. The latter is especially noteworthy since Cohen plays a strikingly similar character in both films.

In summary, "Beneath the Harvest Sky" may not be a complete failure, but it's hard to ignore its flaws. The most glaring of which are its lack of focus and originality. If you're expecting an inspired take on the teen drama subgenre, then you're better off looking elsewhere. Rating: ★★★

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