First-time filmmaker Matt Sobel delivers a mysterious, tense coming-of-age story with Take Me to the River, a selection of the NEXT program in this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film epitomizes the festival’s mission of discovering new talent, as it showcases the mark of a prodigious young artist. Set in an expansive environment of alienation, the film tells the story of Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay West Coast teenager visiting his mother’s estranged family in Nebraska farm country. Ryder’s orientation must be suppressed due to the lack of acceptance from his relatives, but in the aftermath of an anomalous event, he becomes the central focus of the reunion, struggling to keep his identity under wraps while other secrets are slowly revealed.
Sobel’s places familial taboos and the urban-rural class dichotomy at the heart of the film, to bring about a story which comes across personal and widely relatable in its scope. He weaves an intricately layered sense of subtext, regarding the behaviour and psychological construct of primary characters. As a result, the narrative is encased in ambiguity, up to and including its climax that should makes for a uneasy point of discussion.
The ingenuity of Sobel’s directing is complemented by cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton, who represents the southern landscape in striking, foreboding detail. The way he captures images of a desolate nature, visually conveys the sense of isolation that permeates throughout the story. In addition, editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger (Force Majeure) keeps the rate of tension at a brisk pace, and granting each major sequence to register an emotional impact, without wearing down the over-encompassing progression of events.
The performances across the ensemble are nuanced and serve to build off of the subtext in Sobel’s script. In the lead role, Logan Miller is evocative of the frustrations that come with being an outsider, even within the realm of his own flesh and blood. The scenes he shares with Josh Hamilton‘s Keith, Ryder’s uncle and instigator of the central conflict, operate at the peak of the film’s effectiveness. Hamilton demonstrates a great range of being – equal parts vicious and perceptive – and ostensibly the most effective performance of the core cast of characters.
Take Me to the River deviates from the archetypal Bildungsroman storyline, accentuated by the way it employs elements from the thriller genre and political angle of queer cinema. This sense of experimentation in format is a relief from the expanse of independent cinema that rests upon tired conventions. Sobel’s film is at once enthralling and perplexing and hopefully can continue to make a sizable impact on the festival circuit in the months to come.