A visually impressive debut feature that relies too heavily on ambiguity.
Take Me to the River
As a small-scale Sundance character drama, writer-director Matt Sobel’s debut feature defies a handful of natural expectations. In its first act, Take Me to the River follows Ryder (Logan Miller), an openly gay California teen who wants to come out to his extended family during a visit to their farm in Nebraska. But his mother (Robin Weigert) and father (Richard Schiff) are considerably nervous about the consequences that would manifest if their conservative relatives were to learn the truth about Ryder’s sexuality. Sobel often goes out of his way to illustrate the level of social ineptitude that permeates the family. One blind relative, maybe an aunt, actually touches Ryder’s leg when she hears from others about the length of his shorts. In addition to this, Ryder is asked about girls and whether he has a girlfriend on multiple occasions. This initial conflict allows viewers to sympathize with Ryder quickly, but it doesn’t say anything new about what it’s like to be gay in America. It’s a good thing Sobel isn’t done setting up his story.
It’s perhaps worth noting that, while the teenage and adult members of Ryder’s extended family sneer at his queer appearance, the kids seem to adore it. One of his nieces, Molly (Ursula Parker), is particularly drawn to him and convinces her redneck dad Keith (Josh Hamilton) to allow them to search a nearby barn for birds’ nests. But something happens in the barn that results in Molly tearing back toward the gathered family with a bloodstain near her crotch. The accusations from her father are instantaneous and damning: Ryder is a pervert who has, in one way or another, assaulted and injured his daughter. The mysterious cause of the bloodstain could be anything from a fall to a cut to a case of premature menstruation, but Sobel avoids getting to the bottom of this enigmatic rising action. In this crucial early moment, and in many thereafter, Sobel insists on employing cinema’s eternally overvalued subterfuge: ambiguity.
Because key developments are so murkily communicated, the otherwise straightforward world of Take Me to the River often registers as surreal and dreamlike. This enhances the film aesthetically but cripples it narratively. Sobel doesn’t venture far enough into the skeletons in the closets of the quarreling relatives to properly grasp the tension boiling under nearly every scene. The framework of his story suggests an exploration of conflicting American mindsets, yet the actions of the characters are left shrouded in mystery when they could be used to reveal much more about what’s actually going on.
Misplaced obscurity aside, Sobel does do an impressive job of enhancing individual scenes. Whatever’s going on, there’s usually something engaging about the frame. Sobel will often inject queer imagery into the film’s redneck-laden Nebraska landscape. One shot, for example, depicts Ryder and one of his nieces riding small horses over a hill blanketed entirely by shimmering yellow flowers. Keeping in mind that Ryder’s nieces are the only members of his extended family with speaking roles who accept him, it’s almost as though the shot is conveying their environment’s satisfaction at being momentarily occupied only by people who accept each other.
More of what glues Sobel’s debut together is the strength of his cast. Robin Weigert is a standout as Ryder’s mother, embodying a woman clinging to a sliver of resolve to protect her son with deft skill. Logan Miller is also quite convincing in the central role. But the most impressive work might come from Ursula Parker, who seems to fully grasp the implications of her role in the film and uses that level of understanding to her advantage. Her ability to grasp complex concepts and then apply them to her character is astonishing considering she can’t be more than twelve or thirteen. Take Me to the River proves Sobel is a talented director, one who knows how to frame a shot so it’s visually explorable. If he would’ve been able to dig deeper into key plot elements rather than expecting the audience to fill in the gaps for him, he would’ve had quite the noteworthy first feature.