'Take Me to the River': Sundance Review

Take Me to the River
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Lots of promising story elements, but needs to turn up the volume on the underlying menace

Logan Miller plays a gay California teenager who gets an uneasy welcome from his Nebraska relatives in writer-director Matt Sobel's feature debut

There's a piquant dramatic kernel at the center of Take Me to the River, exploring the mutual suspicion between an uninhibited gay teenager from the liberal West Coast and his unaccepting kin from the Nebraska cornfields. Writer-director Matt Sobel's debut feature also stirs interest by taking some audacious risks in its depiction of precocious preteen sexuality. But despite its sharp visuals and evocative sense of place, the unevenly acted film never quite builds enough atmospheric dread to distract from its characters' somewhat implausible behavior.

Too many inexperienced filmmakers rely on music to create tension, rather than building it into their characters and plotting. But when the obsessively trippy bassline for "Under Pressure," by Queen and David Bowie, comes in to cue the end credits here, it's difficult not to wonder how much difference a suggestive score or a more sophisticated soundscape might have made to this creepy but less-than-trenchant drama.

In the car en route to a family celebration at the sprawling farm where his grandmother (Elizabeth Franz) still lives, 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) asks his mother Cindy (Robin Weigert) if her Nebraska clan is aware that he's gay. His laidback dad Don (Richard Schiff) advises against broadcasting that news, reminding Ryder that the get-together is not about him.

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While Ryder reluctantly keeps quiet, his outfit speaks volumes. He rocks up to the al fresco lunch in snug red shorts, a deep-plunge V-neck T-shirt and yellow-framed '80s retro shades. The assembled jocks and cowboys roll their eyes, but Ryder's young female cousins have drunk the Katy Perry Kool-Aid; they are bewitched by the cool alien in their midst, none more so than nine-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker).

When Ryder and Molly slink off to the barn to look for bird's nests in the rafters, something happens; the girl emerges screaming and traumatized. Having already made no effort to disguise his distaste for his nephew, Molly's father Keith (Josh Hamilton) reacts with rage. Open hostility follows, making it clear that Ryder and family are no longer welcome, and Keith's longstanding issues with sister Cindy resurface. A possible olive branch is extended the next day, but the unsettling climate instead exhumes a murky family secret.

Or at least it should. Sobel's grasp of tone and story become less assured as the intrigue unfolds and Ryder gets drawn into Keith's home, where his three daughters and their young mother (Azura Skye) start to look disconcertingly like sister wives. But that's just a false clue in an unsatisfying mystery.

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Parker is compelling in this section as the preternaturally adult Molly shakes off her funk and takes charge of their guest's entertainment. But Hamilton's affectless performance is dull and unconvincing in a role that cries out for the restrained menace of a John Hawkes. Miller is fine, if a little petulantly one-note and short on vulnerability. The cast's most consistent work comes from the reliable Wiegert, conveying the dilemma of a woman who has chosen another life but still feels the pull of her roots, no matter what lies buried with them.

Cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton captures some beautiful images of rural tranquility — cornfields in the breeze, a cow in a meager patch of shade on a sweltering day, rustic red barns, sunflowers on a grassy hilltop. But the contrasting sense of danger is undercharged, which is problematic in a movie that hinges largely on the unseen and unspoken. That leaves audiences too much time to ponder why Cindy, like most mothers, wouldn't just haul her son out of the threatening situation. And even later when the conflicted reasons for her behavior become clearer, it doesn't explain Don's seeming willingness to expose Ryder to potential harm.

The film is absorbing, but even at under 90 minutes, it meanders. In order to work as a psychosexual family drama, it needs either a darker, more insidious mood or a less polite helping of redneck gothic.

Production company: Explosion Film

Cast: Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Josh Hamilton, Richard Schiff, Ursula Parker, Azura Skye, Elizabeth Franz, Ashley Gerasimovich

Director-screenwriter-producer: Matt Sobel

Executive producers: Hisami Kuroiwa, Nick Case

Director of photography: Thomas Scott Stanton

Production designer: Margaret Ruder

Costume designer: Rebecca Luke

Editor: Jacob Secher Schulsinger

Casting: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent

Sales: Cinetic

No rating, 86 minutes.