I came into “Take Me to the River” with little knowledge as to what the movie was about, and perhaps the best way to approach it. At first it looks to be a tale of a gay teenager dealing with his conservative relatives who have yet to understand how human nature really works, but then it takes a sharp left turn to reveal that it’s about deep dark family secrets which are revealed in a wordless way, and the psychological impact it ends up having on its audience is far more profound than we ever could have seen coming.
We are introduced to Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay California teenager who is going with his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert) and dad Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder is intent on revealing his sexuality to everyone there, but his parents encourage him not to. Not long after he arrives, he is treated with suspicion from others as his red shorts look like a swimming trunks and his glasses seem like something out of the 1980’s. His cousins, however, are crushing on him as he makes them special drawings and find him wonderfully rebellious. Things, however, go awry during a moment between him and 9-year-old Molly when she comes out of a barn with a bloodstain on her dress. Ryder is immediately suspected of abuse by his uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton), but he makes clear that he didn’t do anything to her.
Now revealing more about “Take Me to the River” from there is a bit tricky because it is better not to know too much about it beforehand. For a time, you think you know where the movie is going to go, but then it becomes a lot more like a thriller. This is especially the case when Ryder is invited to a supper with uncle Keith and his family as Keith looks to make amends with him, but his laser like stare indicates that he is something quite devious planned for his nephew.
This movie marks the feature film directorial debut of Matt Soebel who also wrote its screenplay, and he does an excellent job of putting us right in Ryder’s shoes. Like Ryder, we have little idea of what’s going on and it leaves us with an inescapable feeling of dread. And like “The China Syndrome,” it doesn’t have (or even need) a music score to underscore the tension that builds up. We don’t really hear any music until the very end, and when the final song comes on it feels like such a relief.
This is also a motion picture which derives its power from what is not said more than anything else. Soebel is not interested in spelling everything out to us as our imaginations are capable of generating things far more frightening, and when the story comes to hint at a deep dark family secret, we cannot help but feel unsettled.
But as much as “Take Me to the River” sounds like a thriller, it is at its heart a coming of age story as Ryder comes to better understand the people around him and develops a stronger compassion than he ever had before. The fact that he is gay eventually becomes a tiny issue as their bigger things to undercover which has left some with very nasty emotional scars. This is saying a lot because many coming of age movies don’t come constructed like this, and it makes it all the more unique.
I was very impressed with Miller who left an impression on audiences in last year’s “The Prison Stanford Experiment.” We never catch him portraying a typical teenager, let alone a typical gay teenager, but instead a regular kid who is caught up in a situation he can’t stay one step ahead of. I also liked Hamilton’s performance as uncle Keith because it shows him to be quite the poker player. But the most impressive performance in “Take Me to the River” comes from Robin Weigert who plays Ryder’s mom, Cindy. At first she makes Cindy an overprotective mother, but her actions come to reveal someone who suffered a serious trauma she can never fully make peace with. Weigert, just with a look, shows us how deep her emotional scars go, and it’s always impressive to see any actor pull that off without having to spell it all out for the audience.
There’s always something to be said for a movie that catches you by surprise, and “Take Me to the River” is certainly one. I went into it with very little knowledge as to what it would be about, and it took me on a ride unlike few others I have been on recently. In a time where movies are bound by formulaic standards and studio executives who are hell bent on starting the next big franchise, it’s nice to know there are still filmmakers out there who are making movies which go against the grain. Not everything can be the same, and in the end everyone needs some variety as they can get easily bored.
If you love movies that break the mold, then “Take Me to the River” is one you need to check out. When it comes to humanity, there’s always something more to a person than meets the eye. While you might think that individuals can be easily divided into groups of people you feel you can easily identify, this movie comes around to remind you that it is not as easy as you think. Family secrets are never easy to unveil, and this movie serves as a reminder as to why that is the case.
Here’s looking forward to what Sobel has in store for us next.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016