“Take Me to the River” is a quietly disturbing slice of Southern Gothic that isn’t Southern at all. It’s a Nebraska-California culture clash/sexual abuse story confined and contained in a single family, on a family farm over a reunion/birthday celebration weekend.
This debut indie feature from writer/director Matt Sobel doesn’t quite stand up to close scrutiny, but it is unsettling in the extreme, nervously touching on a whole array of taboo subjects.
Logan Miller (“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) is Ryder, a gay California teen whose parents (Robin Weigart, Richard Schiff) are dragging him to the farm she grew up on for her mother’s birthday.
Ryder’s a hip, sassy kid. But he needs to tone it down around his unsuspecting relatives.
“They can’t fight you unless you give them something to fight against…I know these people. They’re not very accepting.”
But he can’t help himself. The too-tight shorts come out, the campy sunglasses go on. His snarly, rube cousins want to know where he got them.
“Uh, the 80s?”
All his younger cousins — girls — adore Ryder. Molly, a precocious nine year old played with guileless cunning by Ursula Parker, drags Ryder off to show him the farm.
A scream, blood on her dress, and Ryder stands accused — not out loud — by some, especially Molly’s mad-eyed dad, Keith (Josh Hamilton of TV’s “Madame Secretary”).
It’s what happens next that truly shocks. Nothing. As in, Ryder’s family doesn’t pack up and leave, his mother (Weigart is on TV’s “Jessica Jones”) is too convinced she can smooth this over. His dad (Schiff, from TV’s “The West Wing”) is ineffectual and seemingly spineless.
Keith is threatening in the extreme. Their car is vandalized (“California Perverts!”). And yet Josh is lured over to Keith’s house for lunch — just an uncle and aunt, their three little girls, and the awkward teen semi-accused of assaulting one of them.
Scenes seem included for shock value — Ryder singing a song he won an award for, in high school, that touches on gay sexuality — rather than logic.
But the family intrigues are…intriguing. Ryder, and we, are curious about what is going on, what sort of Greek tragedy his mom’s family is playing out.
You want to credit “Take Me to the River” more than it deserves, but it’s not bad. And it suggests that both Sobel and Miller, whose Ryder seems tragically wrong-footed and guileless at every turn, are talents worth keeping an eye on in the future.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult situations, sexual subject matter
Cast: Logan Miller, Robin Weigart, Ursula Parker, Josh Hamilton, Richard Schiff
Written and directed by Matt Sobel. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:24