Being a gay teen trapped on a rural farm among homophobes who suspect you’re a child molester is a terrifying situation.
Take Me to the River, written and directed by Matt Sobel. At Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA and The Luna Theater, Lowell, MA
By Peg Aloi
On its surface, this film from first time writer-director Matt Sobel feels like a coming-of-age story about a young man grappling with his gay sexuality. Teenager Ryder (Logan Miller) is in a car with his parents Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff), en route from California to Nebraska for a family gathering. He asks his mother if she has told the “Nebraska family” if he is gay. Both Cindy and Don gently suggest he keep this under his hat and “not make it all about you.” Ryder retorts by asking if his father should deny his own Jewish heritage. Coming in the opening scene, the dialogue feels heavy handed and needlessly expository; isn’t there some way we can find out Ryder is gay without resorting to trite talking points? But then, consider: a kid brave enough to come out to his parents is probably in a state of mind where he wants to talk about it constantly. They arrive at the Nebraska farm, a bucolic landscape of corn and alfalfa fields, and a gathering of about forty people sits around outdoor tables piled high with barbecue and corn on the cob.
The California threesome is greeted with indulgent affection. Ryder is handsome, polite, and deferential, but responds with barely-concealed disdain when his male cousins poke fun at his bright red shorts and his ’80s sunglasses. The female cousins, all younger than ten, have crushes on Ryder and want his attention constantly. Everything seems fine until nine year old Molly (Louie’s Ursula Parker) asks Ryder to take her to see bird nests in the barn. Her father, Cindy’s brother Keith (Josh Hamilton), tells her not to climb on the hay bales. While there she asks Ryder if it’s true that his father is not his “real” father; she’s cagey when Ryder presses her for more information. Molly is precocious and somewhat flirtatious but, when she gets Ryder to put her up on his shoulders so she can climb higher, she falls, and then runs shrieking back to the house with a bloodstain on her dress.
A somewhat predictable (and yet also weirdly surreal) situation follows in which Ryder is suspected of molesting Molly. Cindy asks to examine her and Keith blows up when she suggests Molly may have started menstruating. The menfolk form a circle and gaze threateningly at Ryder; their silence is actually terrifying. Keith knocks him to the ground and demands he stay away from the house. Ryder is ready to come out to the family, thinking that it will somehow “prove” he is incapable of molesting Molly; his parents think this is a Bad Idea. Ryder runs off and spends the night in a vacant farmhouse on his grandmother’s property, where his mother joins him. We begin to understand there is some ugly history in this family and that it’s been hidden for some time.
The next morning, Don and Cindy’s car has ugly graffiti scrawled on it. Cindy asks Ryder to help her wash it off and decides to say nothing. Molly’s younger sister shows up with two horses and an invitation for Ryder to come for dinner, offering her father’s apology. It sounds odd and dodgy but Ryder goes anyway. Keith and wife Ruth (Azura Skye) are civil with Ryder, but both ask him unusual questions, hinting at his “artistic” activities in California. It feels like a set-up. Hamilton is great in this segment, all sincere half-smiles and good-humored gaslighting, while Skye gives off a nervous air, possibly because her character lives with a husband who is a sociopath. Ryder responds to their odd questions with halting words and a polite “WTF” expression, eyebrows cocked and mouth askew. I found this annoying, but Miller kinda grew on me — he embodies the typically cocky but clueless teen.
Ryder and Molly spend more time alone, after Keith whispers in Molly’s ear. They wade into the river and she asks him to “play chicken” as they did in the barn so she could reach the bird nests. (A parallel scene in Mustang came to mind, where the young sisters were accused of “pleasuring themselves” while sitting on the boys’ shoulders.) The narrative becomes a bit weird and creepy after that, and the long-hushed secret is hinted at, if never fully explained.
I can’t say I found the screenplay terribly artful (it tries too hard to create moments of dramatic tension). But the cast is very solid and there is a tone to the film’s look and feel that is unsettling in a very satisfying way. Even though the dialogue occasionally feels calculated, there is an undeniably compelling air of menace and secrecy generated, making it hard to guess what might happen next. Being a gay teen trapped on a rural farm among homophobes who suspect you’re a child molester is a terrifying situation. If this is a metaphor exploring what America really is versus what we’d like to think it is, it’s a fairly apt and disturbing one.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour.