Director Matt Sobel has quite the impressive debut at hand in Take Me to the River, a film whose quietly commanding presence captivated audiences at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is now making its way to theaters this Friday.
“Mom, have you told the Nebraskan family I’m gay?”
This is how the film begins, as 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) asks his mother (Robin Weigert) from the backseat of the car on their way from California to their annual family reunion in Nebraska. His father (Richard Schiff) struggles to find the words, finally settling on telling him that “he shouldn’t make this event all about him.” So, no, they didn’t tell the extended family.
Enduring the stereotypical family reunion activities like group pictures and big barbecues, Ryder’s approach to the experience is cautious, guarded even. He has a hard time fitting in with his male cousins who are quick to judge him on his “short” shorts and attire, so he befriends his younger female cousins who are infatuated with their cool “Californian” big cousin. 9-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker), with the confidence of a woman four times her age, asks Ryder to go out to the barn with her. He obliges, and they leave the house for the barn about one hundred feet away.
This is where the monotony of the reunion gets turned upside down. What happens isn’t immediately clear, but Molly, obviously traumatized, comes screaming from the barn, her dress blood-stained near her upper thighs. Ryder follows after, confused and quiet. The way this scene plays out makes for a very uncomfortable watch for the viewer, so much so that it gave me a knot in my stomach. We believe in Ryder’s innocence, but the situation is odd; he is openly gay to his immediately family but closeted to his extended one, his mother begging him not to come out even thought it would clear his name from any wrongdoing because “her family isn’t very accepting and it would just be one more thing.”
Sobel captures the claustrophobic, yet well-intentioned environment of the family reunion so perfectly, it’s as if we’re transported amongst the alfalfa fields and Nebraskan humidity. Take Me to the River‘s authenticity shines through the saturated visuals, as Ryder follows the tension-ridden string of truth to uncover his darkly disturbing family history. While shot like a slice of life narrative, the film pushes the comfort-zone of the viewer to the edge like not many films, let alone small budget independent ones, can.
Major recognition goes to 24-year-old Logan Miller, whose previous film experience includes The Stanford Prison Experiment and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. No other actor could have done a better job than Miller, his innocence and angelic portrayal of Ryder makes him the perfect unsuspecting target and sympathetic hero.
Take Me to the River will have viewers on edge for its entire 84-minute runtime. Sobel has managed to mix the beauty of the Nebraskan, small town farm life with the scandal and mystery of a thriller, minus the genre cliches and tropes. Many times, a river is a symbol of rebirth, symbolic of baptisms to cleanse one’s sins. Here, this river is the devil’s playground.
Take Me To The River opens this Friday at Landmark’s Nuart with a theatrical rollout to follow