First-time writer-director Matt Sobel’s “Take Me to the River” unfolds in an atmosphere of mystery and dread that contrasts with its surroundings’ bucolic serenity. A gay Californian teenager’s visit to Nebraskan relatives turns more nightmarish than he anticipated, for reasons that he never could have imagined, as clouds of displaced sexuality hover over flowing rivers, fertile fields and little girls on big horses. Told uniquely through the kid’s largely uncomprehending point of view, this Midwestern gothic tale maintains sufficient visual distance to suggest alternative narratives from other perspectives. The superlatively acted indie promises more than it delivers, but chillingly evokes sufficient primal dread to intrigue target auds.
En route to his mother’s family’s farm, Ryder (Logan Miller) and his parents (Robin Weigert and Richard Schiff) argue over whether to announce Ryder’s homosexuality at the clan get-together; Ryder is unwilling to deny so important a part of his identity, but his mother, Cindy, is vehemently opposed to the idea. Ryder reluctantly agrees to say nothing, which does not prevent him from defiantly donning gold-colored sunglasses and raspberry short shorts. Ryder’s outfit and his on-demand drawings as a quick-sketch artist are big hits with his uncle’s four little daughters, particularly 9-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker), who insists he accompany her to the barn to examine a bird’s nest. Several minutes later Ryder emerges, looking stunned while Molly runs screaming past him, the front of her skirt stained with blood.
From this point on, Ryder stumbles bewilderedly through a series of increasingly surreal events, with helmer Sobel creating an uneasy atmosphere — half dream, half nightmare and totally incomprehensible. Everyone treats Ryder strangely, in ways that have nothing to do with his gay-vs.-straight scenario. Cindy turns weirdly overprotective as her memories drift around the old homestead, her vocabulary suddenly rife with idioms that revert back to her roots.
Ryder’s uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton), Molly’s father, treats him with an exaggerated smiling amiability far more menacing than his initial anger and hostility, leading Ryder into one exquisitely uncomfortable, tension-fraught encounter after another. And Molly herself, bound in some whispered conspiracy with her father, takes Ryder on horseback to the river, involving him in water sports that uneasily echo the earlier sexual ambivalence of the barn incident.
In his adolescent egocentrism and simplified sense of sexual identity, Ryder takes most of the film to realize that what is transpiring relates less to him personally than to festering family secrets — that he has, in fact, wandered into someone else’s primal scene. In a weird way, “Take Me to the River” represents an inverted coming-of-age movie where, far from discovering his sexual identity and place in society, the hero, his homosexuality firmly entrenched, suddenly comes to grips with the power of other subjectivities to rock his world.
Sobel allows his highly skilled actors to create in-depth characters and suggest complex backstories with little dialogue. Miller’s Ryder, tumbling down a Nebraskan rabbit-hole, stands as the deliberate exception, serving as a vehicle for emotions he never really owns; the viewer identifies less with this slightly pudgy, unformed teen than with his confusion and disorientation. But Hamilton brings intensity to Keith’s rage and intelligence to his cat-and-mouse mind games with Ryder that belie any simple country-bumpkin reading. And in a brilliant performance as Ryder’s mother, Weigert nervously shifts inflections with every encounter, futilely attempting to reconcile past and present, Nebraska and California.
Unfortunately, as with Josephine Decker’s “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” a rich, sexually transgressive atmosphere trumps narrative balance in “Take Me to the River”; the twisty revelations pale beside the ominous fecundity of nature.