In a just world, Harvest would be getting a wide release alongside of, if not necessarily instead of, Thor. Writer-director Marc Meyers’s sophomore feature is an astonishingly confident work that avoids nearly all the pitfalls of contemporary independent cinema, flirting with cloying treacle in only the handful of moments the film employs a borderline-cliché alt-rock soundtrack. The rest of the film is sterling, its modest strengths amplified by a finely tuned creative process that never overexerts its ambitions or condescends to its subjects: three generations’ worth of family living together during their cancer-stricken patriarch’s last summer.
College student Josh (Jack Carpenter) at first appears to be the film’s audience surrogate character, but Harvest quickly takes on a more universal eye toward its characters that borders on the Altmanesque. The determined angst of the young and the weary wisdom of the old coexist with understanding and ease, and Harvest finds eternal truths in the struggles of a family that manages to hold onto happiness despite disease, divorce, and internal upheavals. Even those elements that would read as tired formula on paper—the dementia-stricken grandmother (Barbara Barrie) who offers life lessons in her ramblings, the bitter uncle (Arye Gross) who attempts to thwart his father’s will, etc.—are delivered with more than adequate nuance and feeling to overcome such pigeonholing. This is some of the finest ensemble acting to be seen in any “small” film in recent memory, entirely free of the overt mannerisms and hyperactive self-awareness one would expect from a work of this kind.
Harvest finds a comfortable naturalism in the rhythms of daily life and understands that even people who love each other tend to talk past one another; when Josh finds himself in an impromptu phone argument with his girlfriend Tina (Christine Evangelista), he inadvertently takes his frustrations out on his mother, who divorced his father when he was 16 and regrettably coerced him to allow her full custody. Only the aforementioned bitter uncle, Benny (Josh’s uncle/Anna’s brother), seems less than sufficiently rendered at times, but his prick-like behavior typically pushes him to the outskirts of the otherwise tightly bonded group; his self-imposed isolation ultimately reinforces his relative lack of dimension. These characters are allowed flaws and self-awareness in equal proportion, often manifesting themselves in heartbreaking moments of revelation and despair—none more so than an unexpected deathbed confession.