Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beneath the Harvest Sky

USA  (116 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly         Official site

Good people make bad choices.            —Casper (Emory Cohen)

Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly worked together for five years following the lives of three senior citizens who spent years greeting nearly one million returning U.S. troops when they arrive at the tiny Bangor, Maine airport in the documentary THE WAY WE GET BY (2009) before finally getting married in a wedding profiled in The New York Times Vows Section.  Their documentary film experience clearly effects the meticulous detail expressed in this film taking place entirely in the small border town of Van Buren, Maine, becoming a portrait of the hardscrabble life in the bleak and economically deprived town where the French-Canadian accents are built into the everyday language.  Infused with the best traditions of the American indie film style, which are often hampered by monetary restrictions, they make up for it in the authenticity of the experience, where the film offers a genuine view of what it’s like to grow up in the world of rural poverty, as afterwards the audience is likely to feel a familiarity with this tiny rural town with a population of less than 2000 inhabitants, as if we’ve been there, where there’s a comically derogatory reference to the movie FROZEN RIVER (2008), which covers similar territory.  The film immediately captures one’s attention by a scene in a high school classroom where they are studying S.E. Hinton’s 1967 teen novel The Outsiders, a novel published when the author herself was only 18, a realistic portrayal of poor teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks featuring the likes of characters named Sodapop and Ponyboy, who may as well be the leads in this film, featuring two fiercely loyal high school friends that couldn’t be more devoted to one another, Casper (Emory Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe).  While Dominic is spending the summer helping out his parents with the potato harvest, he’s a smart kid with a bright future, but he continually gets drawn into the troubled affairs of Casper, a hothead Alpha male that plays by his own rules, thinking he’s infallible, making him a bit of a small-time hood with ambitions to get out of town, where their shared dream is to move to Boston (seemingly a million miles away) where they can watch Red Sox games.  

At the urging of others to stay away from Casper, as he’s always up to no good, Dominic is forced to constantly defend his friend, claiming others just don’t understand, yet their friendship feels reminiscent of the Biblical Cain and Abel saga, paralleled by two other brothers in the film.  The film is seen through the eyes of Casper, who is mostly a despicable character, someone we’ve all encountered at one point or another in our lives, the kind of guy destined for the penitentiary or death by the age of 25, as the only decisions he knows how to make are the wrong ones, where he makes a living glorifying the persona of being rebellious, almost always seen on the wrong side of the law.  We see him break into people’s homes and steal their prescription medicine, making him part of an underground, pharmaceutical black market network that transports pills across the border to New Brunswick, a business that’s been in his family for generations, where they pride themselves in being able to move contraband without detection.  Casper has a 15-year old girlfriend Tasha (Zoe Levin) who quickly becomes pregnant, where the adolescent tension is only aggravated by the fact that he orders her around, continually berates and belittles her, while both continue to live with their parents.  The feeling of being trapped is at the heart of the picture, as essentially every character plays into this dead-end scenario, with the potato harvest as the only thriving business in town, where there’s just no future for these kids unless they can get out.  Illustrating this point is Dominic’s short term relationship with Emma (Sarah Sutherland, aka Kiefer Sutherland’s daughter), a girl that’s already visited prospective colleges in Vermont, where she’ll soon be moving on, making their relationship tenuous at best.  The looseness of the film’s structure is part of its appeal, as it’s a highly impressionistic, stream-of-conscious mosaic connected by the raw and achingly lonely songs from musician Dustin Hamman, the front man of the group Run On Sentence, moving from unpretentious moments of raucous street euphoria to the saddest and darkest feelings of despair (the musical soundtrack can be heard in its entirety here: pre-order). 

While the film is told out of time, it has a tendency to get lost exploring its many jagged side plots, often growing messy and losing narrative coherence, which may detract some viewers, but what it does beautifully establish is more local flavor into the film, where the town itself may as well be the lead character, expressed through a series of vignettes showing a farm community at work, populated entirely by secondary roles that tend to come and go, or move in and out of view, where we might even see a drunken late-night moose chase on the highway or a rather incredible performance by a heavy metal punk band that suddenly appears out of nowhere.  Only Casper is a fully developed character, but as he’s such a mischievous and thoroughly detestable soul, treating everyone around him like shit, thinking he’s above it all and impervious to criticism, where the glorification of his character, flaws and all, is a difficult and often unpleasant journey, especially when he remains at the centerpiece of the film.  He’s obviously a bright, if misguided kid, with few options, where he has a tendency to continually get ahead of himself, to act before he thinks, where he never foresees the murky trouble that lies ahead, mirroring the adults around him, thinking instead that none of the dirt and muck will stick to him.  As he gets deeper into his estranged father’s (Aiden Gillen) business, Dominic calls him on it, claiming he’s become an errand boy for his father, which is exactly what everyone in town expected from him as he was growing up, where only Dominic had faith that he’d make more out of himself and become something different.  This disappointment leads to a personal tragedy that resembles a similar fate of Ponyboy’s best friend Johnny in The Outsiders, a heartbreaking moment that draws attention to the significance of these young lives, each so terribly fragile, with dreams dissipating into thin air after high school when few opportunities await them due to the economic bleakness that pervades the vicinity.  Written, directed, edited, and produced by this artistic team, it has a distinctively autobiographical, though male-tinged flavor, where the filmmakers lure in the viewer, with both inhabiting the same shared space for a brief duration of time.  Like Shunji Iwai’s ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (2001), another teenage angst film filled with brooding high school characters that get lost in an overpowering stylization, this is irrefutably impressive filmmaking, where the indie-style cinematography by Stephen Capitano Calitri is nothing less than mesmerizing at times, but there is a disconnect with so many of the people that inhabit this film, which may be the point, as the audience is left with an anguishing emptiness that literally stirs the soul in this barebones musical coda that brings down the closing credits, Run On Sentence "Wide Open Sky" YouTube (5:03). 

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