A gay, black, intellectual New York teen is sent to live with relatives in the hostile alien territory of the South in John G. Young’s drama “Rivers Wash Over Me.” Young’s films (“Parallel Sons,” “The Reception”) depend on his thesps’ ability to flesh out their characters and naturalize their idiosyncratic, often interracial relationships. Here, adolescent lead Derrick L. Middleton fails to build a convincing character, leaving his castmates to react in a void, with the exception of Elizabeth Dennis, virtually carrying the film through sheer force of personality. Pic’s interlaced themes, never fully jelling, may nevertheless spark distrib interest.
The film opens in Jefferson, N.C., with the arrival of Sequon (Middleton); self-effacing to the point of autism (though his radical T-shirts speak volumes), he alienates everyone he meets. His star athlete cousin Michael (Cameron Mitchell Mason), with whom he bunks, brutally rapes him as an expression of his own closeted homosexuality. Quoting James Baldwin in English class earns Sequon the disgust of his white English teacher and the enmity of fellow student and drug dealer Ahmed (Duane McLaughlin), who denies his own intelligence by refusing to go to college. Black and white school kids alike look on Sequon with contempt, united in their willingness to beat him up.
Sequon receives little support from his cousin Charles (co-scripter/co-producer Darien Sills-Evans), the recently installed town sheriff, who is struggling to maintain integrity within the highly compromised racial politics of the region. Although unstated, it is clear that having a gay resident in his upscale house would complicate his situation. Charles will live to profoundly regret his cowardice at the pic’s close.
Only Ahmed’s white g.f., Lori (Dennis), a self-destructive, slutty-looking, coked-up rich girl with a mile-wide sweet streak, dares to befriend Sequon, who reminds her of her gay brother Jake (Aidan Schultz-Meyer). Soon the siblings are hanging with Sequon, showing him the town and teaching him to swim.
Ultimately, “Rivers” contains the elements of a fascinating film about the lies, denials, cover-ups and compromises underneath the fragile racial balance of a small Southern town. Unfortunately, they lie scattered across its surface like so many signposts — eminently readable, even interesting, but rarely compelling.
The fault may lie somewhat with Young’s mise-en-scene, which tends to underline thematic points rather than develop them organically. But virtually any scene with Dennis explodes spectacularly. She effortlessly synthesizes her character’s contradictory aspects, energizes the film’s flow and conveys the tensions in the town with personal immediacy. One wonders how well “Rivers” might have turned out with an equally dynamic actor at its core.