In “Take Me to the River,” Logan Miller excels as a young gay man at once comfortable with his sexual identity while concealing it from an extended family largely for the comfort of his parents. Miller, who also appears in the Sundance title “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” nails every note of his character’s disaffection and chronic discomfort at a chaotic family reunion in Nebraska.
Writer-director Matt Sobel’s quietly engaging debut is one of the great discoveries of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival: His fish-out-of-water observations have a personal edge — the film is shot partly on his own extended family’s Nebraskan property — but it soon builds to a place of nightmarish psychosexual revelations.
The film starts with 17-year-old Ryder (Miller) pleading to his parents, played by Robin Weigert and Richard Schiff (Toby on “The West Wing”), to allow him to tell his extended family at their reunion in Nebraska that he is out of the closet. They refuse. It’s about more than just you, they argue. The rouse is mostly unconvincing, until members of his family start to suspect him of something much more perverse.
Ryder again appeals to his mother Cindy to let him tell his extended family that he’s gay in an attempt to alleviate said outlandish accusations. Ryder wants nothing more than to assert his sexual identity proudly, but Cindy is more cognizant of her family’s conservatism — and that her preference for Ryder to conceal his sexuality is more out of his protection than hers. The complicated bond between mother and her only son is one of the most compelling central elements of the story, touchingly and sensitively rendered thanks to Weigert’s intuitive performance.
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The family dynamics provide a fascinating contrast of generational values, in part due to the ensemble cast. The darker undertones of the family are handled with surprising nuance considering the first-timer behind the camera. The movie deals in open secrets, implications, and unsettling histories; a sense of alienation haunts virtually every scene.
“Take Me to the River” covers a lot of ground in its 84-minute running time while taking cues from its expressive visuals. Long shots of the Nebraskan plains by cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton speak to the aching isolation of the main character as he’s exiled to an outside barn for a night.
With its lyrical approach to a deliberate pace, the movie develops a hypnotic effect even when deceptively little happens. Sobel manages to penetrate Ryder’s interior state with constant focus.
It’s a promising start for the newcomer, whose next project is reportedly a Chinese-set science fiction tale about two orphaned girls recruited to become Olympic synchronized high divers. That alone confirms the arrival of a significant talent as interested in off-the-wall genre experiments as intimate projects such as this one.
“Take Me to the River” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.