Matt Sobel's first feature, Take Me to the River is a delicious slow burn of a movie, slowly unraveling to reveal the secret tension that lies underneath a family and drives their interactions. It's a fantastic indie work in a recently crowded field, but it stood out to be one of my favorites when I saw it last November at the Virginia Film Festival.
But for all the psychodrama at the end, the film starts out somewhat differently. Ryder (Logan Miller) is a pretty normal California teenager. He's also gay, which doesn't bother his parents, Cindy and Don (Robin Weigert and Richard Schiff), but they ask that he keep that relatively quiet while they visit Cindy's more conservative family back in Nebraska.
The culture clash is all but expected, and we all start filling in the blanks already: out gay kid; rural folk stodgily clinging to their bibles and guns. Except when they arrive Ryder is the envy of his younger cousins. His flamboyant sunglasses, t-shirts, and short shorts -- all of which make his mother tense up, expecting a backlash -- are evidence of how cool and stylish their California cousin is. Molly (Ursula Parker) in particular develops what can only be called a crush.
So when Molly wants to go explore the old barn on their grandmother's property, of course she only wants Ryder to come along and make sure she doesn't get hurt. A short time later she comes running out, crying, a spot of blood on her dress. Nobody knows what happened in the barn; even Ryder seems confused, and Molly is hysterical. Tempers flare, and Ryder wants to explain that he has no interest in girls of any age, but Cindy cuts him off; who knows if this crowd would take his sexuality as even more damning evidence?
Eventually, Cindy manages to stop Keith (Josh Hamilton), her brother and Molly's father, from taking her son's head off. And, with Ryder temporarily exiled to an old shack on the property for the night, things seem to settle down. But nothing is resolved, and the tension only builds more quietly.
In the early morning, Ryder returns to his grandmother's house to find his family's car defaced, accusing perversion. Cindy helps him clean it off and keep things quiet before anybody finds out. And when Molly arrives on a horse, extending an invitation from her family for Ryder -- and just Ryder -- to come to lunch, it seems weighted with a veiled threat.
Weigert is always a treat when she gets a larger role like this, and she handles her shifting responsibilities here quietly, but deftly. Miller has the more showy part, but he holds his own against a very menacing performance by the ever-talented Hamilton. And special praise must be given to the young Ms. Parker for her work in a uniquely challenging role. Although challenging material for such a young actress is nothing new to her, since she already appears regularly as Louis C.K.'s younger daughter on his eponymous FX show.
But it's writer/director Sobel who brings it home for the audacity of his story, and the skill with which he pulls it off. He plays expertly off the audience's familiar patterns to misdirect our attention until just when he wants to reveal something. And, once he's finally ready to deliver the whole story, he brings it down on us with such devastating confidence that should leave everyone curious what he'll do for an encore.
Rating: 4 out of 5