The freshest, most authentic aspects of “Beneath the Harvest Sky” are the film’s locations — the farming towns of Aroostook County, along the border of northernmost Maine and Canada — and its clear-eyed view of hardscrabble lives there. There are too few dramas set in America’s rural underclass, and “Sky” joins “Winter’s Bone” (2010) and “Frozen River” (2008) in casting a spotlight on back-country poverty and the struggle to escape it.
In almost all other respects, this narrative debut from the Maine-based husband-wife documentary team of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly travels down roads rutted by dozens of other movies about a good kid, his hotheaded best friend, and the frustrations and temptations they face. The genre’s bones were laid down by Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in “Mean Streets,” but while “Beneath the Harvest Sky” aims for some of the restless visual style of a Scorsese on the St. John, the film’s length and portentousness render it a lesser Springsteen song.
Still, there are good things here, and a Maine that’s the exact opposite of a tourist map. Shot in towns like Fort Kent, Madawaska, Van Buren, and Frenchville, “Harvest Sky” offers a bleak depiction of communities hanging on from one potato harvest to the next and filling the blank spots between with whatever painkillers come to hand.
Increasingly, Oxycontin and other prescription meds are the drugs of choice, and one of the film’s two protagonists, Casper Cote (Emory Cohen) has a toe in the business. When Casper, a strutting bad boy who once again has fallen afoul of high school authorities, sits in the kitchen of the local dealer, it’s with a shock that we realize that Clayton (Aidan Gillen), the coolly friendly older man, is the boy’s father.
Gillen plays the devious Littlefinger on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” but his approach here is less manipulatively evil than small-town pragmatic. Similarly, Cohen atones for his ridiculous baby-Brando performance as Bradley Cooper’s son in the recent “The Place Beyond the Pines” with a performance of charisma and growing pathos. Casper is an impulsive, energetic kid who has been told he’s a loser for so long that he’s finally buying into it.
By contrast, his best friend Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) is steady, quiet, a good student, a dutiful son, and a hired hand at harvest time, sorting spuds that will find their way into potato chip bags across the country. He’s saving up to buy a cherry-red used sports car that will take him and Casper to Boston for a Red Sox game, but that’s about as far as their dreams go. A harvest romance with Emma (an appealingly low-key Sarah Sutherland), a classmate bound for college, seems like a door that’s simultaneously opening and closing, and while the script offers hints of the fierce bond Dominic feels with Casper — the one person who sees and accepts his rebellious side — McAuliffe’s too-watchful performance doesn’t follow through.
“Beneath the Harvest Sky” wants to deliver a portrait of a stressed-out friendship, a backwoods drug melodrama, a realistic depiction of northern New England life, and a bit of a farming documentary. That’s too much to juggle even without an earnest approach to cinematography and editing that struggles to seem important but too often feels plodding. Every so often, though, the filmmakers come through with a genuine only-in-Maine moment, like a night-time “moose safari” in which bored teenagers in pickups chase a local Thidwick down a dirt road.
The supporting cast is strong all around, including Timm Badger as Clayton’s weak-willed brother and partner in drug-running, Zoe Levin as Casper’s needy 15-year-old girlfriend, and Delaney Williams as a grinning agent for the Maine DEA. Stronger still are the nonprofessionals playing the old folks who willingly sell their prescription medications to Clayton. Among the many harsh truths the filmmakers glimpse before moving on is an illegal economy that often is the only thing keeping impoverished communities alive. While the climax of “Beneath the Harvest Sky” is a jumble of crosscutting, thunderstorms, and an inconveniently collapsing house, the movie never loses the pulse of people and tragedies it knows too well. You probably won’t look at a bag of Terra Chips the same way afterward.