Take Me to the River
By Hans Pedersen, July 2016 Web Exclusive.
Take Me to the River starts out as the story of a California teen who’s going to come out to his extended family in Nebraska, but the narrative takes a sharp right turn. Director and writer Matt Sobel and actor Logan Miller (Stanford Prison Experiment, Ultimate Spiderman) spoke with Echo Magazine about their intriguing new film, which premiered at the Sundance 2015 Film Festival and is not available on iTunes.
Echo: Can you talk a little bit about the dream you had that inspired the project?
Director and writer Matt Sobel.
Sobel: I’ve been going to this actual family reunion for every year since I can remember. And in my dream I was falsely accused of something, something inappropriate, with one of my younger cousins. But I couldn’t remember exactly, when I woke up, what it was. I just remember feeling like this cordial, and what should be a very warm environment, suddenly turning toxic, and everyone looking at me, and feeling like there was nothing I could do to defend myself. I was just digging myself in deeper Feelings stick with us from dreams more than plot, and I think that good movies may work in the same way. And I wanted to make a movie about that visceral sensation ...
Echo: What attracted you to the project?
Miller: The unique sensibility of it. Matt and I had met a year prior to the film actually going into production. I remember reading it and thinking this had been the strangest storyline that had ever taken place in Nebraska. What was interesting to me too is, I come from a background that’s very similar to this. My parents are both from Midwestern Kansas; my mom grew up on a farm, my father grew up in Emporia, Kansas. This entire lifestyle the people are living in Nebraska, the setting itself was very familiar to me.
Echo: You take what initially seems like a coming out story and it gets taken over by this other story. It’s like a cliché and you kind of explode it.
Logan Miller as Ryder.
Sobel: The title of the film, until this last year, actually, was Explosion, because it was the explosion of a cliché, like you just said … I realized instantly it was in total with conjunction with the coming of age. We do, at 17, feel like we’re on firm ground, with our understanding of the world, because we’re probably reading James Joyce in school, and listening to interesting music. And we’re having interesting conversations if we’re going to a good high school. But we don’t know anything about the way the world really works: it’s actually a lot more gray than it seems to us at that point. So I realized pretty quickly the structure could mirror his experience, because it’s so much a [point of view] story, I wanted it to be really united, not only on a plot level, but also on a structural level of the story and tonal level to his experience.
Miller: Yeah, we were talking in other interviews and had come to the conclusion that we’re in a second generation of queer cinema, in a way, where it’s not necessarily about the coming out ...
Sobel: They called it post-gay cinema … what somebody else said.
Miller: Exactly. It’s more about the journey, the realization of who you are. It’s not just about being gay, but finding out who you are as a person.
Sobel: I strongly believe that every story with a gay central character should not be a coming out story. I think that’s a pretty reductive thing to continue to do. And I didn’t really realize it, necessarily, until we were shooting it ... His orientation is one aspect of a more complicated story.
Echo: Did either of you have anybody express some sort of resistance to the project? People saying “don’t go there” with the subject matter?
Sobel: The first person I showed the script to, before I even had any confidence built up around it, said “I don’t think you should make this story at all, drop it right now” ... I went to a film development lab in Amsterdam called Binger. It was mostly Europeans and none of them of course were going to tell me to not go there, and that’s where the film took shape. And I think the film does have a more European sensibility in terms of sexuality. And I realize in the U.S. it will make people more uncomfortable than abroad. But then again, we have shifting cultural standards on that topic.
It was only in the '80s when Brooke Shields was taking extremely erotic photographs in Vogue, but now when a photographer shoots Miley Cyrus with a bare shoulder, everyone is in an uproar. So I think rather than children becoming sexualized, it’s really the adults who are to blame for most of the bad energy that could potentially surround that.
Miller: Which is also to be said of this film … What happens to children in their adolescence, something that was innocent, when they couldn’t even conceptualize what was going on, this label is put on them, “oh you did something wrong.”
Sobel: Quite simply, definitions about these things, words like masturbation, these labels and the judgment placed on children by adults, is unfortunate. And I also think it’s unfortunate how we much more willing to watch young females be hurt in films than to have any sort of sexual agency, and what does that really mean about us?
Miller: As a human race.
Echo: Can you talk about how you wanted the viewer to be the co-creator of the story? You really succeeded.
Sobel: Thank you. That is my favorite part of reading a book, and also I realized why I love serials so much, and that’s because I have to picture all of the things that they were talking about on that podcast. And I found myself naturally investing a lot more of myself in the story. So it began as an experiment to see how to do something like that in a film. You could do that by having that action take place off the side of the frame ... You could also do that by leaving negative space in the narrative to allow people to put their own or inject their own story inside. Now that was step one.
Step two for us – and this is where I ask you if we succeeded – was to, at the end of the film, ask the audience, almost to put a mirror to the audience to say, to what extent are you responsible for creating this story? In the way that a lot of the people at the reunion inserted their worst fear into a moment they did not see ... One more point I wanted to add on that, in a story that seems like it’s going to be good guy versus bad guy I wanted to, by the end of the story, complicate it to the extent that there is no pure evil in the story, but everyone is culpable, including the audience.
This award-winning Sundance hit bypassed local theaters; and is now available to rent on iTunes for $4.99.
Take Me to the River
There’s good reason that critics have compared Matt Sobel’s first feature, Take Me to the River, to the movies of Roman Polanski. In addition to its European sensibility, repurposed in a Midwestern setting, the movie is laced with the smoldering sensation of the possibility that something terrifying could happen.
Writer/director Matt Sobel has crafted a suspenseful drama about taboos and family secrets, which builds methodically, leaving viewers guessing about the intentions of some characters. And that sense of foreboding is at stark odds with the natural beauty surrounding them.
The story is told from the point of view of Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay California teenager who’s heading to a family reunion with his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert, Concussion) and stepdad Don (Richard Schiff). Ryder plans to be out and proud to his midwestern family, and upon arriving in the green pastures of Nebraska, they tentatively welcome the newcomers – at first. The teenager’s red short-shorts demarcate him as different, categorizing him as an outsider immediately.
Ryder’s young cousin Molly (Ursula Parker, FX’s "Louie") is enamored with him, and together they run off to a barn to play. But an off-camera incident leaves the girl crying and running into the house, with a bloodstain on her dress in a place it shouldn’t be, followed by her father Keith (Josh Hamilton) marching out of the home to confront his teenage nephew.
Beyond outsider status now, Ryder is now the target of hatred. The reunion becomes claustrophobic, as family members look at him with derision and scorn. The teenager is banished for the night to sleep an outlying building that’s abandoned, and in a touching sequence, his mother comes outside to join him for the night.
While the tension seems to dissipate midway through the film, it’s quickly revived soon enough to keep the momentum building toward its revelatory conclusion.
In an intriguing turn, Uncle Keith has a curious change in attitude and sends over an invitation to Ryder. Seemingly friendly now, he launches into a man-to-man conversation with the teen, and in a nail-biting scene, introduces a handgun into the situation.
Ultimately, Ryder and Molly are told to go play together alone again, and Uncle Keith suggests the two youngsters make a journey on horseback so the teenager can take her to the river.
And what unfolds there is one of the more shocking moments in the history of cinema. Viewers may ask themselves why the filmmaker depicted the activity; many adults would agree that, at first glance, such a scene should not appear in a film.
What’s fascinating about Take Me to the River is how the viewer is left in a position to judge the filmmaker for including this shocking moment in the movie – and as a result we see how, as adults, we wind up imposing a similar kind of judgment on children as they discover their sexuality.
The stunning shots of the natural Midwestern landscape that Sobel and cinematographer Thomas Scott Scanton capture are aesthetically inspired. The rustic setting not only serves as a counterpoint to the building dread, but the helps underscore idea that our sexuality is a product of nature.
The characters are immersed in imagery and ambient sounds from the natural world, such as a sea of golden sunflowers and the rustle of leaves. The rich, verdant landscape thrives around these innocent young people and the incipient urges that are about to be squelched by adult hang-ups.
So much is left unspoken when dealing with matters of shame, but sounds of nature, like an ominous cacophony of buzzing cicadas, help to sustain slow-building tension that permeates the movie.
It’s easy to compare this kind of suspense to Polanski’s works, particularly such films as The Tenant and Death and the Maiden, where the fear of what will happen next is palpable and unnerving.
Sobel also makes clever use of river imagery, deliberately reflecting a sort of flipside to baptism. It’s what the director calls a “reverse baptism,” which is not so much a cleansing process, as a “muddying” of the waters that more accurately reflects the coming of age and loss of innocence.
The story’s conclusion demonstrates how inflicting shame on children tends to be a cyclical process. In a masterful performance as Ryder’s mother, Weigert helps deliver home this idea in the film’s final scenes, when a long-buried truth comes to surface.
Sobel directs his movie with confidence, eliciting outstanding performances from the actors and crafting a soothing ambience that heightens the intrigue. Despite a lull in the pacing, Take Me to the River is a standout debut feature, which wraps up with a perfect pop-song coda and shows how, in a savvy way, adults tend to inflict blame and shame on the next generation.
For more information on Take Me to the River, visit facebook.com/takemetotheriverfilm.