REVIEW: Take Me To the River [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 84 minutes | Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Film Movement
Director(s): Matt Sobel
Writer(s): Matt Sobel

“The beans have to come out of the oven”

First-time feature writer/director Matt Sobel set out to create a film that allowed its viewers to become active participants in the story process and he’s succeeded. Take Me to the River is nothing if not ambiguous in a way that forces us to give meaning to unanswered questions and oddly truncated scenarios. It’s claustrophobically emotional with intense discomfort both for the characters and audience. How you interpret what’s happening beneath the surface of knowing looks, fierce provocations, and devastating guilt says more about you than those onscreen because it reveals how dark your thoughts are willing to go to make sense of the unexplained. Is everything a misunderstanding, a revelation of abuse, or perhaps even the difficult acceptance of an incestuous past feeding into easy Midwest stereotypes?

This should be a joyous reunion wherein Californians Cindy (Robin Weigert), Don (Richard Schiff), and son Ryder (Logan Miller) can bask in the glorious Nebraskan farm country of her family’s land. Cindy is the sole member to escape this existence after being accepted to UCLA, finding love, and starting a family. This isn’t to say the others are trapped. On the contrary, they all seem quite content with their own choices too. Would they easily accept Ryder’s homosexuality with open arms? Probably not considering contentment hardly equals enlightened compassion. Should he hide this truth from them as a result? No. He doesn’t think so. But Mom and Dad do if only to not rock the boat. Let Grandma (Elizabeth Franz) enjoy herself by keeping drama at a minimum.

As everyone knows, however, drama always finds a way with families. Ryder listens and doesn’t speak about his sexuality, but that choice unfortunately isn’t able to stop his relatives from thinking or calling him a “pervert”. No, the epithet is wielded for a different reason after an innocently flirtatious nine-year old cousin (Ursula Parker‘s Molly) takes a shine to him. She wants him to draw her pictures, tie her shoes, and take her to the barn loft. We feel the frustration stewing behind her father Keith’s (Josh Hamilton) eyes, but think nothing of it. He’s just tired of her shenanigans and willing to let Ryder take her off his hands for a bit. But this isn’t quite the truth as a scream, bloodied dress, and tears quickly expose.

Sobel abruptly turns everything on its head as the assumed drama of Ryder’s coming out party is sidetracked by an event no one anticipates. Rather than find ways to delve into the topic with the purpose of discovering a solution, however, Sobel renders things even more disquietingly off-kilter. Don is suddenly shone as non-confrontational despite a desire to teach his son how to protect himself. Cindy moves from protective mother with selfish motives to keep her at peace more than her son to an overly affectionate one breaching Ryder’s personal space at a time of anger that’s earned him privacy. And Keith transforms from reactive brute showing signs of physical abuse upon his children and wife (Azura Skye‘s Ruth) to a calculatingly scary purveyor of awkwardly suspicious actions.

It’s impossible not to squirm in your seat when events occur to subvert your preconceptions while also providing them room to grow. A misunderstanding could be rectified by letting Ryder tell the family he’s gay (like he wants) and yet that would open another can of worms since Keith won’t even let Cindy (a doctor) check on Molly after loudly assuming the worst by refusing to believe puberty could come so early. They are so conservatively set in their ways that the truth is meaningless in the face of appearances—something Ryder’s short shorts and 80s sunglasses have already sparked attention towards. So when two close-minded cousins find Ryder hiding across the field, we fear a beat down. Somehow the lack of one proves even worse to endure.

Sobel begins to introduce multiple power struggles as dangerous secrets are revealed with just enough detail to get our minds racing to fill in the blanks. Chicken fighting is given whole new meaning; Ryder sings an overtly sexual song at a table with his aunt, uncle, and four female cousins ages eleven and under; and Cindy continues trying to sweep controversy under the rug so her idyllic family image survives the weekend. Whispers are seen but never heard, innocence is used as a tool of aggression, and a handgun becomes an extension of manhood to hide behind. The walls seemingly move in, tightening Ryder’s world and ours simultaneously as the potential chaos lying in wait threatens to ignite but never does. We must escape as much as him.

Exiting the situation supplies little solace, though, with everything remaining unknown. Questions about Molly and her sisters’ wellbeing become uncomfortably moot as Keith’s actions play out like they’re a game. The Nebraskans’ cavalier attitude contrasts the Californians’ uncertainty so well that Sobel could have easily transformed this film into a domestic-set psychological horror. Ryder and Cindy are the victims of an abuse that leaves no marks. And since one of their abusers might in fact be a little girl disturbingly complicit in her own loss of innocence, they prove more vulnerable and worthy of our attention and empathy. Credit is due to Parker for such a frighteningly mature turn that makes me wonder if her real life parents need a chat with social services for accepting the role.

Skye and the girls are standouts participating in Keith’s game while Hamilton portrays his ringmaster with an unforgettable malice. He’s a monster even if he’s doing nothing wrong. Maybe Sobel shines him in a villainous light to push our distrust through the filter of personal hang-ups. Perhaps Molly’s the true puppet master; her playful giggle a siren of control. All we know for sure is that we can never know everything about our families—the secrets left unsaid in a dance of mutually assured self-destruction. Weigert beautifully performs Cindy’s wrestling with inherent guilt and self-loathing while Miller’s Ryder is so out of breath that he’s frozen in place more often than not. I was too, my brain endlessly refusing to stop my eyes from seeing the absolute worst.

courtesy of Film Movement

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