Sunday, January 24, 2016

Secrets, Lies, and Evasions in Matt Sobel's Directorial Debut, Take Me to the River

Robin Weigert and Logan Miller in Take Me to the River.
It's a little
to find that
Matt Sobel's
directorial de-
but has noth-
ing to do with
the classic Al 
Green song--
or the great
Talking Heads
cover--but the
title makes sense by the end. The story revolves instead around a rather naïve California kid and his Oklahoma cousins.

In the prologue, 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller, a former Disney XD
star), his mother, Cindy (Robin Weigert, Jessica Jones), and his stepfather,
Don (Richard Schiff, who appeared in SIFF's thematically similar The Automatic Hate) travel to Nebraska for a family reunion. Because of his
yellow sunglasses and bright red shorts, his cousins treat him like an alien; they seem genuinely surprised that he refuses to dress like a hick (the prologue also reveals that he's gay, and they might be picking up on that). It's an overreaction on their part, but things soon go from bad to worse.

The trouble begins with his nine-year-old cousin, Molly (the preternaturally
poised Ursula Parker, from FX's Louie), who has a crush on him. She con-
vinces Ryder to come with her to the barn behind the main house to look at a bird's nest. Minutes later, she runs screaming from the structure, with blood on her dress. It's pretty clear that Ryder didn't do anything, and Molly calms down within an hour or two, but everyone looks at Ryder with suspicion (it doesn't help that he's such a passive, squirrely kid). His par-
ents offer their support, but his uncle, Keith (Josh Hamilton), with whom
Cindy has a strained relationship, is convinced he tried something.

In Molly's room.
Ryder spends
the night in an
house on the
property until
cooler heads
prevail, which
begs the ques-
tion: why did
his family
make this trip
in the first
place? (Other
than to provide a plot for the film, of course.) With the exception of his grandmother, the Okie relatives are small-minded creeps. It makes no sense why Cindy, who grew up on the farm, would want to spend a few hours in a place she was thrilled to leave--let alone several days. 

Fortunately, Keith eventually calms down and apologizes to Ryder, but then
things go from strange to stranger. Azura Skye's jittery performance as his
wife adds to the strangeness, since it's hard to tell if she's just nervous in
general or if she's genuinely scared of her gun-toting husband. After a
tense dinner, Keith suggests that Ryder and Molly return to their grand-
mother's house, where his parents are staying. They use horses to make the trek. On the way there, they pass a river. Ryder wants to keep going, but the strong-willed Molly insists they go for a swim, and so they do.  

On the way to grandmother's house.
Once again,
nothing un-
toward hap-
pens, but Ry-
der is dis-
quieted by
the exper-
ience. There's
a sense that
the flirtatious
Molly doesn't understand what she's doing, and is following her father’s orders, but why would he instruct his underage daughter to act seductively around her teenage cousin?

Not to give too much away, but Ryder proves to be more of a catalyst than
a character, since the film really concerns his mother, and that's to its ben-
efit, because Weigert, who first made her mark as Calamity Jane on
HBO's Deadwood, is a stronger actor than Miller, who spends too much time gazing blankly around him, though that may be exactly what Sobel instructed him to do. In any case, if Take Me to the River, which follows an appearance in last year's The Stanford Prison Experiment, represents part of Miller's attempt to shed his teen idol image, it's a good start. 

Only a few beats later, and it's over (though languorously paced, the film clocks in at a lean 84 minutes). Sobel never spells out what all the stress and tension was about. It certainly wasn't about the differences between California and Oklahoma, between the country and the city, or any other surface trappings. It is, instead, about a secret that no one dares to speak aloud, and becomes apparent more through inference than incident. Sobel found a circuitous path to get there, and the film might have worked better as a short, but the unusual journey marks him as a unique talent.

Take Me to the River is playing SIFF Film Center through April 7.