At multiple points in Take Me To The River – the feature debut of writer and director Matt Sobel – I thought I was watching one thing, then my perspective inverted, and I was watching something else entirely.
At first, it looks like it’s going to be a standard-issue fish-out-of-water indie drama, about a gay California teenager and his liberal parents going to visit their conservative farmland relatives out in Nebraska. En route to the get-together, Ryder (Logan Miller) asks his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert) if they’ll be informing her relatives about his sexual orientation. Cindy, attempting to hide her social panic beneath a veneer of diplomatic nonchalance, says she thought they’d just keep it to themselves. This clearly does not sit well with Ryder’s teenage sense of justice. His father Don (Richard Schiff) steps in to agree with Cindy, and shows considerable patience when Ryder snaps back: “Maybe we shouldn’t tell them you’re Jewish.”
The scene is a testament to the considerable skill of all three actors, who manage to communicate an enormous amount of character information through looks and body language, layered over relatively sparse dialogue. Weigert and Schiff, both veterans, are matched by Miller, who is not only young but has the job of carrying the narrative and serving as the audience’s sympathetic entryway into the story.
The scene also suggests we’re in for some chest-thumping about Ryder’s identity-politics courage, versus the cowardice of his parents and the bigotry of his relatives. Ryder is certainly ready for that throwdown. At the big outdoor lunch with all the relatives on the farm, he shows up in a chest-revealing v-neck t-shirt, tight red pants and plastic sunglasses right out of the 80s. This gets some snickers from his male cousins, but most of the adults are either bemused or uncomfortably silent. But his quartet of younger female cousins, led by the precocious and demanding Molly (Ursula Parker), all adore him. Take Me To The River subtly suggests Ryder is a breath of fresh air in their cultural world, and he gently tolerates their attention and sketches them all pictures.
Then Molly demands to go play in the barn, and Ryder attempts some awkward diplomacy by agreeing to shepherd her. Things get slightly uncomfortable as Molly climbs the hay bales and demands to get on Ryder’s shoulders, even as the boy reminds her that his uncle, Keith (Josh Hamilton), instructed them to be careful. Then we cut back to the lunch. Moments pass, and then there’s a scream and Molly comes running back to the crowd, blood on her skirt, with a confused and terrified Ryder in pursuit.
There’s no obvious injury on the girl, and a seething and physically imposing Keith suspects Ryder of some impropriety. Cindy rapidly intuits that Molly has simply started menstruating, and tries to reason with Keith that it’s not unheard of at 9-years-old. “Maybe in California!” Keith snaps back. The culture clash deepens as Ryder begs his mother to tell them he couldn’t have done anything because he’s gay, and Cindy freezes up into horrified indecision.
The rest of the movie follows the fallout: Ryder spends the night out away from the crowd, and later a lunch is attempted between Ryder, Keith, and Keith’s family to smooth things over. Both Ryder’s cruelty to his mother, and Cindy’s cowardice in the face of the social impasse, deepen to genuinely cutting levels.
Director Sobel shoots and orchestrates the inciting event in a hand-held naturalistic style. But then he shifts to something more dreamlike, and Take Me To The River begins to feel almost like a physiological thriller or supernatural horror. Nothing so dramatic is in the offing, but Sobel’s subtle shifts gradually reveal we’re not actually watching a story about Ryder at all. There are reasons for Cindy’s all-consuming panic, and for Keith’s bug-eyed, over-the-top rage. The misunderstanding with Molly is simply a random event by which Ryder finds himself plunged into someone else’s drama of long-buried pain. His character arc is to cease to be the center of attention, and to learn a capacity for empathy. Miller delivers four simple words late in the film that carry a real gut punch.
Miller and Weight both carry this off with aplomb. Schiff gets somewhat less to do as Don, but he does go from being ineffectual and “buddy buddy” at the beginning of the film, to demonstrating a robust faith in his son’s capacity to stand on his own two feet by the end. But the most interesting performance may be Hamilton as Keith, who reveals intelligence and cunning layered atop his resentment of Cindy’s education and urban background.
Unfortunately, Sobel’s script does not serve Keith as well as Hamilton does. The character’s shift from outraged reaction to creepy mind games with Ryder is extremely tonally effective, but doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Other parts don’t hold up in retrospect, either. There’s an act of cruel vandalism for which responsibility is never determined. Later, Keith and his wife (Azura Skye) talk Ryder into singing a song he wrote for their family at the dinner table; and you’d think even Ryder would know at that point to demure, given the song’s homoerotic lyrics. Both scenes seem put in place to shock and heighten tensions, rather than because they emerge from any organic character logic. And if you follow the logic of the film’s clues, it’s pretty clear someone should be talking to child protective services by the time the credits role. It’s not key to any of the character arcs, but it seems like a necessity the film should at least acknowledge.
But despite its logical leaps, Take Me To The River holds together. Sobel’s control of tone and pacing is masterful, the performances are all top notch, and the beauty of the Nebraska landscape becomes both alluring and creepy. Whatever its shortcomings, the story slowly peels though genuine human layers. And its small, sad tale contrasts effectively with the deep sense of unease Sobel manages to conjure.