In many ways, The Harvest feels like an above-par Stephen King adaptation from the late '80s or early '90s. The film isn't based on one of King's books (it's an original screenplay by first-time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti), but it has bits and pieces of Misery, Stand By Me and Carrie in its DNA. It's a horror movie of sorts, but the sort of horror movie that's far more interested in complex character development than in cheap jump scares. It rarely attempts to make you flinch, instead creating an emotionally loaded situation designed to put knots in your stomach and leave you feeling uneasy after the credits roll.
I suspect that a large portion of the film's old-school vibe is due to the fact that it was directed by John McNaughton, making his first big-screen feature in well over a decade (his previous feature was the 2001 rom-com Speaking of Sex, but his biggest claim to fame remains his deeply unsettling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). There are times when the direction feels a little too slack, but McNaughton also demonstrates an impressive level of patience and subtlety: once the film begins to incorporate an element of creeping dread, McNaughton never gives into the temptation to turn the movie into an overheated thriller or turn his rich, complicated characters into one-note cartoons.
Maryann (Natasha Calis, The Possession) is a young teenager who is moving in with her grandparents (Peter Fonda, Easy Rider and Leslie Lyles, Blue Jasmine) after the recent death of her father. Naturally, it's a difficult situation: in addition to dealing with her grief, Maryann has to start going to a new school and find a way to make new friends. She quickly forms a connection with Andy (Charlie Tahan, I Am Legend), a wheelchair-bound neighbor who is forced to stay in his room at all times due to an unspecified medical condition.
Alas, the visits between Maryann and Andy are quickly brought to a halt by Andy's mother Katherine (Samantha Morton, Minority Report), who feels Maryann's presence will only impede Andy's progress. Andy's mild-mannered father Richard (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) gently suggests that it might be good for the boy to have a friend, but Katherine shoots down such ideas with surprising firmness. After a while, we begin to realize that Katherine is a wildly overprotective mother, but what motivates her desire to keep Andy so isolated?
I dare not reveal the film's secrets (and there are more than a few), but I will say that Morton delivers what may very well be the most impressive performance of her career to date. She creates one of horror cinema's most terrifying mothers, and her fury has a savage bite that feels both uncomfortably real and incredibly bizarre: Andy's oh-so-slight deviations from her instructions eventually inspire the sort of rage-filled outbursts that no child should ever have to witness. There are layers to this performance I can't even begin to discuss, and Morton plays every single one of them with remarkable (and often frightening) authenticity.
Meanwhile, Shannon's work is a fascinating example of an actor playing against type. He's almost always the most intimidating presence in any given film, but here he taps into some of the heartbreaking vulnerability he brought to Take Shelter and plays a character who seems to be constantly doing battle with his own cowardice. He clearly disagrees with the way Katherine does things, but lacks the willpower to stand up for himself. Even his acts of defiance are almost immediately accompanied by bashful apologies. What's wrong with this man? The movie has a remarkably compelling answer. Jointly, Shannon and Morton create a rewardingly complex and frequently painful portrait of a messy, broken marriage.
The Harvest eventually digs into some dark, uncomfortable territory, but it's worth noting that this is fundamentally a children's movie. No, it's not operating on the juvenile level of a typical family flick, but it's very much the sort of thing that mature, thoughtful kids are apt to respond to. Horror movies are all about using extraordinary situations to tap into our ordinary fears, and this one digs deep into some of the most unsettling thoughts we have at an early age: “What if my parents really aren't taking care of me? Why don't any grown-ups take my thoughts and feelings seriously? What if I don't really belong here?”
Tahan and Calis both do exceptional work as Andy and Maryann, with the former playing a heartbreaking sort of wide-eyed uncertainty and the latter essaying a good-natured Nancy Drew type with the sort of effortless confidence that suggests she may be a star someday. Despite the unsettling subject matter, there's a tenderness in the way the film deals with the difficulty that comes with starting to see the world as it really is. There are few things as essential or as horrible as truth.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 2015