For thrills, chills, and scintillating melodrama, look no farther than “The Harvest,” John McNaughton’s most recent venture into the horror genre; but don’t use the film to inform the uninitiated about the perks of homeschooling your kids.
Maryann (Natasha Calis) just wants a friend, and release from the doldrums of being the new kid in a new town. Katherine (Samantha Morton,) the emasculating and controlling homeschool mom of a very sick boy, has other ideas. When Maryann meets Andy (Charlie Tahan,) a wheelchair bound preteen, it’s affable curiosity and burgeoning friendship at first sight, but Katherine is totally hellbent on keeping Andy as far away from Maryann as possible.
She keeps Andy and his dad Richard (Michael Shannon) in constant fear of her insane mood swings (it’s safe to say that Richard, like “American Beauty”‘s Lester Burnham, has had his balls stored in a mason jar under the sink since the early years of their marriage,) overprotects Andy to the point of ridiculousness, and keeps Andy on a variety of numbing medications that seem to increase exponentially by the minute. It’s almost as if she doesn’t want him to get better- but that’s crazy, right?
When Maryann quite accidentally does a bit of probing into the matter, she discovers a horrible secret that Richard and Katherine would die to keep buried far, far away with their other familial skeletons. Maryann wants to help Andy, but what can a kid do when her live-in grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles) are so obtuse about her shocking discovery? One thing’s for sure- Andy’s not breaking free of his domineering mum without an explosive confrontation.
“The Harvest” is like a soap opera you can’t stop watching for fear that, if you turn away, you’ll miss one of the insane plot twists. There’s probably more constructive things you should be doing, but something keeps you anchored to the TV screen, and for some reason, you don’t even resent the power it seems to have over you. The realism is questionable, the unanswered questions are daunting, the confrontations are over-the-top but the film has the effect of reading a really good paperback novel- you’ve just got to turn that next page.
Although “The Harvest” can be outrageous, the performances solidly support a sensational premise, including a thoroughly committed acting job by Samantha Morton. Morton flips by the turn of a dime from a annoying overbearing ice queen with a vast array of outfits apparently picked from the Mormon Housewife section of the JC Penny to a genuinely malevolent force. She’s so outrageously cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs that you almost laugh, but you genuinely fear for those orbiting her one-woman circus act.
The whole cast- Michael Shannon as a stereotypical deballed hubby with a perpetual hangdog posture, Natasha Callis as a girl probably too smart for her own good, Charlie Tahan as a put-upon youngster- are so devoted to making their roles work that they manage to gloss over the more soap-opera-ish moments. There are certainly some logistical infallacies (unless Maryann is the kind of child who habitually tells tall tales, which I suspect she isn’t, wouldn’t her well-meaning grandparents put some credence to her wild story- at least give her a chance?) and the ending raises more questions than it answers, but the film itself is luridly compelling.
It held a strange power over me, maybe partially because it shows how quickly good intentions- anything for the one you love’s sake- can slip-slide into focused evil. I haven’t seen hardly anything with Samantha Morton (nothing memorable I can remember off the top of my head) but I think she was outstanding in this role. Her devotion comes with a body count, and her husband must decide how long being her bitch serves his best interests. Shit will go down, and we kind of love that about it.