Take Me To The River

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A naive California teen plans to remain above the fray at his Nebraskan family reunion, but a strange encounter places him at the centre of a long-buried family secret.
"A complex film where the real story unravels in the background."

"Don't climb up the hay bales," the kids are told when they go to the barn. It's dangerous apparently. But nine-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker) doesn't care. "I do it all the time," she says. She's one of four sisters and she makes a lot of bold statements, carving out her own space in the world. She's very different from her older, Californian cousin Ryder (Logan Miller), who has learned to be cautious because of people's attitudes to his sexuality - especially now, when he's visiting family in Nebraska and his mother has begged him not to come out. Officially, Ryder is supposed to be looking after Molly, but that's difficult for him to do. When she runs out of the barn screaming, a bloodstain on her dress, his life is turned upside down.

Films in which gay characters become scapegoats have been around since the Sixties, so disturbing as this is, it's too slight a premise to hang a whole film on. Fortunate, then, that this is a much deeper and more complex story, with everything that seems exaggerated or out of joint in the first half gradually coming to make sense in the second. Like many young people in large families, Ryder is floundering through a maze of tensions and resentments created by those who went before, with no clear idea of where to go to stay out of trouble. On seeing Molly's bloodstained dress, his uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton) violently assaults him, accusing him of abuse. His wife, meanwhile, is asking the girl if she fell or cut herself, far more likely scenarios. Why does Keith leap to such a conclusion? Why do Ryder's parents, who clearly don't believe the allegation, fail to call the police or rush their son back to California where he can be safe? Miller, suitably blank and befuddled in the lead, struggles to understand a series of obscure and blatantly unfair developments just as he might, if his worldview were a little more sophisticated, struggle to understand his inherited status as a victim of homophobic prejudice is the wider world.

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If these violent early scenes are unsettling, things take a much more sinister turn when Keith announces that he's sorry for his behaviour and invites Riley to dinner in his home, sending another of his young daughters to fetch him. The horseback ride through fields of yellow poppies is reminiscent of 2014's Jauja and suggests a journey between worlds. What follows is a mixture of cat and mouse dialogue, deadpan comedy and apparent non-sequiturs which only seem darker as the possible reasons for them emerge. Later, down at the river where she has led the bewildered teenager, Molly wants to play games with a distinctly sexual cast. Girls her age have crushes, of course, but there are many scenes in this film in which playfulness and affection threaten to spill over into something else. What is it that Keith is really afraid of? What is the meaning of Riley's mother's increasingly strange and apologist behaviour?

A complex film where the real story unravels in the background, Take Me To The River leaves many questions unanswered and plunges its naif but sympathetic hero into a world where nothing is so clear cut that a simple thing like coming out can resolve it. It's a world tainted by moral ambiguities he doesn't fully recognise, even at the end, and if we don't really see him mature during the story, we do see him become immersed in the same habits of polite obfuscation and hypocrisy that he initially railed against. Like Disney in a minor key, the film's focus is on the true nature of family.

Reviewed on: 16 Mar 2016
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Take Me To The River packshot
A teenager pressured into keeping his homosexuality a secret at a family gathering finds himself accused of assaulting a young girl.

Director: Matt Sobel

Writer: Matt Sobel

Starring: Josh Hamilton, Robin Weigert, Azura Skye, Richard Schiff, Ursula Parker, Elizabeth Franz, Logan Miller, Ashley Gerasimovich, Seth Young, Amy Hostetler

Year: 2015

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


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