“Take Me to the River”
A Long-Buried Family Secret
Matt Sobel’s first feature is absolutely fascinating. It is the story of a gay teenager Ryder (Logan Miller) who is out to his free-thinking, California parents—but not to the backwater Nebraskan extended family he’s about to meet. He comes dress to the reunion wearing yellow wayfarers, a deep V-neck and red short shorts and we see immediately that he does not fit in with his redneck relatives, and especially not with his uncle (Josh Hamilton), the beady-eyed family patriarch who always seems upset about something.
During the picnic that turns highly dysfunctional, Molly (Ursula Parker), Ryder’s 9 year-old-cousin takes a liking to him and his drawings. The young girls of the family love Ryder. This just exacerbates the Nebraska family’s freakish perception of him. It is not long before Ryder finds himself the target of a witch-hunt and is exiled to an abandoned cottage on the family’s property. This is not clearly explored in the script so we do not know if Ryder did or did not molest her. As night falls Ryder goes to the rundown and remote guesthouse and when he awakens the next day he is thrown into something of a whirlpool of Kafkaesque misunderstandings and strange interactions with his family. His mother (Robin Weigert) who once doted on him now mysteriously uses a southern dialect and speaks about alfalfa against the sunset and using out-of-character idioms like “pop” for soda and “supper” for dinner. She seems to have lost sanity and her behavior is not human. We learn that there are long hidden family secrets afoot, but we do not learn what they are about. There is a sense of dread but we do not know why. Sobel has polarized his audience and when we reach the final third of the film there are more questions than answers.
Secrets and denial have serious consequences in “Take Me to the River” and even though this film is set in Nebraska, this familiar problem is certainly not limited to Cornhuskers or Midwesterners. There are some things that need to be discussed and explained openly, especially among family, no matter how uncomfortable or painful. Pretending everything is normal simply does not make the secret disappear. The longer these secrets are there and grow, the worse the eventual impact will be. Whether the motivation is self-preservation or to protect others, running away is never a viable solution.
Sobel’s leaves important details up to the viewer’s imagination, allowing us to come to our own conclusions. When the closing credits appear, it is still unclear as to what just happened, which is precisely how Ryder must feel as he drives away with his parents.
The film certainly presents a potent blend of puberty, sexuality and conservative values and the story represents a seminal moment in Ryder’s coming-of-age, which could be interpreted as a baptism into adulthood; though rather than being cleansed with water, Ryder ends up with mud on his chest.
Sobel’s observations have a personal edge– the film is shot partly on his own extended family’s Nebraskan property as it builds to a place of nightmarish psychosexual revelations. Ryder wants to proudly assert his sexual identity but his mother is more aware of her family’s conservatism and it is her preference for Ryder to conceal his sexuality for his own protection. The complicated bond between mother and her only son is a very compelling central element of the story that is touchingly and sensitively portrayed by Weigert’s intuitive performance.
The family dynamics are an interesting contrast of generational values, in part due to the ensemble cast. The movie deals in open secrets, implications, and unsettling histories; a sense of alienation haunts virtually every scene. The film is hypnotic even when not much happens. Sobel manages to penetrate Ryder’s interior state with constant focus. We watch, we observe and we go to the reunion that becomes an emotional disaster as the film presents a new perspective on family secrets.