Matt Sobel’s earnest debut feature, Take Me to the River, pushes the limits of what being family — no matter what — really means. When seventeen-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) and his parents travel from California to Nebraska for a family reunion, things inevitably go awry.
The teen wants to come out to his extended family, but his mother (Robin Weigert) demurs. Her Nebraskan kin live up to plains-dwelling hick stereotypes with their guns, pickup trucks…and barely veiled psychosexual issues. Ryder has a gaggle of cousins — mostly hulking farm bros and prepubescent girls — but the precocious nine-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker) really takes a shine to him.
After an off-camera jaunt in a farmhouse, suspicions about whether Ryder molested Molly erupt in a punch-filled ruckus that initiates a tense, days-long descent into rural family politics. The most evocative scenes are the smallest — playing with a paper fortune teller, scrubbing slanderous pitch off a car — and Thomas Scott Stanton’s cinematography captures the stagnant heat and dusty beauty of summer in Nebraska. As Ryder looks through a window at the serene farm, a bird rockets into the glass and flops onto the ground, shuddering its last breaths. The moment’s ripe with symbolism: Innocence can die brutally, even in the most pastoral of places.
Impeccable performances propel River through both sluggish and torturous scenes; Parker is superb, a pint-size talent who spars perfectly with Miller’s confused, naive teen. Prepare to be uncomfortable until the very last frame, as Sobel has crafted a deeply unsettling family whose secrets run deeper and darker than that river.
Take Me to the River
Written and directed by Matt Sobel
Opens March 18, Landmark Sunshine