Review: “Take Me To The River” shows promise

Writer-director Matt Sobel's first feature is about a gay California teen attending a family reunion in Nebraska

Anyone who’s ever left home and came back for a family reunion gets it. In those unavoidably awkward (re)encounters with folks you haven’t interacted with in a long time, there’s that overwhelming sense you’d never actively seek out their company were you not related. Matt Sobel’s debut film, “Take Me To The River,” tells of one such trip. Its teen protagonist, Ryder, framed in the film’s opening shot directly between his parents, is clearly not excited for another reunion in Nebraska with his mother’s family.

Not the only awkward dinner-table conversation in Matt Sobel's film "Take Me to the River"

Not the only awkward dinner-table conversation in Matt Sobel’s film “Take Me to the River”

Ryder (Logan Miller, “The Stanford Prison Experiment”) has good reason to be leery of this trip. He wants to come out this extended family. He’s not afraid of his homosexuality, but his mother, Cindy, warning of (or, perhaps, hiding behind) her relatives’ close-mindedness, is terrified by this idea, and asks him to keep mum. She’s played by the great TV character actor, Robin Weigert (who killed as Calamity Jane on “Deadwood”), is a mass of contradictory emotions and subtle tics.

She’s just barely hanging on to this place and these people from her past, you sense, but she also genuinely believes in family unity. The performances by Weigert and veteran indie thesp Josh Hamilton–I’ve always had a soft spot for his turn in “Alive” but you may also remember him from Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming”–as Cindy’s brother, are the reason to see this film, even if the ends don’t totally justify the means when the credits roll.

Rarely, though, do American indies today come this fully formed and well thought-out. You never know where this story’s going. The setup is relatable enough, but when the movie gets weirdly specific with a strange and unfortunate encounter between Ryder and his younger cousin Molly (Ursula Parker, “Louie”) that kills the family-get-together vibe and lays bare old family secrets. The story becomes more interesting, but also more deflating when all is said and done. It’s an original, odd in a way that thankfully doesn’t ape modern indie quirk, but is that enough? For me, not really. I appreciated the film, and respected that it makes its audience uncomfortable, but it doesn’t really find much new to say beyond telling a strange little tale.

That strongly composed opening shot, common as anything in the movies, does tell us more about these characters than we can glean from just the dialogue exchanged. Despite its inherent familiarity the composition is effective and adds dimension to the characters and their place in this landscape. Sobel has crafted a deceptively simple slice of life that wastes little time getting to the crux of its discomforting narrative.

Cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton beautifully captures the Midwestern farmland vista surrounding all the familial tensions: imagine Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” but infused with color and admiration for the area’s simple beauty, instead of condescension. Sobel’s peculiar movie doesn’t demand to be seen on the big screen even though it’s a cinematic piece of work. It may not be a must-see, but there are hints of a strong directorial voice developing here.

(84 minutes, not rated, opens April 15 at Living Room TheatersGRADE: B-

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