By Don Simpson | March 15, 2016
This review was originally published on January 27, 2015 after the premiere of Take Me to the River at the Sundance Film Festival.
Director: Matt Sobel
Writer: Matt Sobel
Starring: Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Josh Hamilton, Ursula Parker, Richard Schiff, Azura Skye
Ryder (Logan Miller) is a gay teenager who lives in Los Angeles. He recently came out to his mother (Robin Weigert) and father (Richard Schiff), yet they have refrained from spreading Ryder’s news to his mother’s family in Nebraska. When they arrive in Nebraska for a family reunion, Ryder quickly learns what is deemed normal in Los Angeles might be considered totally anomalous in Nebraska.
Ryder has no problem being the black sheep in midst of what he perceives to be a backwards family of Midwestern rednecks. With no intention of trying to fit in, Ryder wears his red short-shorts and yellow sunglasses loudly and proudly. His relatives might not jump to the conclusion that Ryder is gay, but they definitely assume that something is “off” about him.
The young girls of the family, however, love Ryder. Specifically, Ryder forms a unique connection with Molly (Ursula Parker), but this only 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.
Secrets and denial have serious consequences in Matt Sobel’s darkly contemplative Take Me to the River; and 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 fester, 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 film masterfully 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 in the hell just happened, which is precisely how Ryder must feel as he drives away with his parents.
Presumably the film’s title is a reference to the Al Green’s song (popularized by Talking Heads) “Take Me to the River,” which David Byrne once described as: “A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin’ Jesus.” Sobel’s film is not all that different from Byrne’s description of the song. The film certainly serves up a potent blend of puberty, sexuality and conservative values. Also, 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.