Sundance NEXT entry “Take Me to the River” is director Matt Sobel’s fascinating first feature. At turns befuddling and obfuscating, this psychosexually charged tale centered on gay teenager Ryder, played by excellent newbie Logan Miller, gets its hooks in you very quickly, managing to sustain that tension for an increasingly bizarre, what-the-fuck-inducing 90 minutes.
Ryder is out to his free-thinking, California parents—but not to the backwater Nebraskan extended family he’s about to confront at a rural family reunion that you could almost call a comedy of manners and errors, if it weren’t spiked with so much murky, underlying menace. Wearing yellow wayfarers, a deep V-neck and red shorty shorts, Ryder doesn’t exactly mesh with his redneck relatives, and especially not with his uncle, the perturbed and totally creepy paterfamilias played with beady-eyed malevolence by Josh Hamilton.
During a dysfunctional family picnic, Ryder’s nine-year-old cousin Molly takes an instant liking to him and his entertaining sketch drawings, leading him off to the barn to explore a bird’s nest. But an offscreen incident sends Molly screaming back to her parents, her skirt freshly stained with blood.
Sobel’s brain-teasing script, rife with unease and occasionally obvious subtext, never clearly defines the sexually ambivalent, did-he-or-didn’t-he-molest-her particulars of this episode. By nightfall, Ryder decamps to a remote, rundown guest house for the night to smooth things over, and the next day is thrust into a deliriously Kafkaesque cycle of misunderstandings and awkward, confused interactions with his family. Even his once-doting mother (Robin Weigert)—who mysteriously adopts a southern dialect, soliloquizing about alfalfa against the sunset and using out-of-character idioms like “pop” for soda and “supper” for dinner—has gone off her rocker. This is not normal human behavior. There are long-dormant family secrets afoot, but what is their nature? We never truly find out.
Compositionally, “Take Me to the River” casts an atmospheric spell, recalling the pastoral, frenzied sexuality of Josephine Decker’s films “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.” Lensed by Thomas Scott Stanton, there are echoes of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” here also, and like that film, the slow-boiling dread plays out almost entirely in the daylight. The film’s lack of soundtrack also makes for a bold formal choice. But thematic forbears aside, Sobel is a true original. It’s unusual for a first-time filmmaker to be this willing to polarize an audience. Accompanied by a truly startling, riverside scene that’s sure to mash the buttons of ratings boards everywhere (and will have you forever squirming at the phrase “chicken fight”), a twisty third-act revelation leaves more question marks than definitive conclusions.
Sobel wanted to make a film about the muddy baptisms of coming of age and innocence lost. He succeeds admirably, gradually unfurling an addictive mystery that I wouldn’t recommend seeing alone, because you’ll be hungry to discuss it afterward. “Take Me to the River” is still seeking US distribution, but should nab cult appeal down the line.