Family secrets take center stage in this intriguing slice of Americana that has hints here and there, but just barely, of Southern Gothic. Ryder (Logan Miller) doesn’t have any secrets and plans to come out to his extended family and relatives in Nebraska. His parents warn him against it, because after all, it’s only a family gathering. Even so, Ryder quietly — like any teen would — defies his parents by using clothes that are non-conventional (short-shorts and a rather revealing V-neck tee). Once there he makes the aquaintance of some cousins and the difference could not be more striking in presenting Ryder’s urban sophistication with kids who haven’t left a farm and think of cities as distant fantasies. One of them, nine year old Ursula, takes an odd liking to Ryder, which he doesn’t rebuff because he’s already and clearly not into girls. However, a short walk to an abandoned barn leads to an attempt to catch a bird’s nest. Moments later, Ursula returns to the party, screaming, a bloodstain emerging from within her thighs.
Accusations are quick to develop as her father Keith (Josh Hamilton) suddenly emerges as a no-nonsense protector who will not let anyone — even and especially Ryder’s mother Cindy (Robin Weigert) — close to Ursula to examine her. Ryder has no problem taking the moment to tell everyone there is no possible way that he could have molested the girl because he’s gay, but Cindy, a heretofore confident city woman, suddenly finds herself tip-toeing around her own relatives who have quickly shifted from family, to potential enemies.
Now, here is where the logical part of the movie kept me going, and the conflicts of a what-would-you-do in me took in. Another part of me would have said, “Fuck you and your accusations, I’m leaving this goddamned party and your place for good.” A quick trip to the hospital would have been more than enough to quell any doubts that Ryder did anything to Ursula. But Matt Sobel, the director, has another way around the plot, and while his view isn’t wholly implausible, it places an innocent character right in the headlights of something way more sinister than perhaps he deserves.
Ryder’s parents decide to bravely wing out the event and allow themselves to get their car smeared with paint. No one seems too interested in coming to their side, but that is beside the point. What comes out of left field has more trepidation than any menace straight out of Deliverance, and it comes forth in the form of Ursula’s younger sister, on horseback, inviting Ryder to her parent’s house for a make-up dinner. I’m not going to divulge anything else from here on because it is a truly nerve-wracking sequence in which we witness one boy being taunted by an uncle with more on his agenda than just making up, and a sequence in which Ryder allows himself to get pulled into the titular river where he (and we) finally realize what’s been lurking in the shadows of the plot all along.
Take Me to the River is a tense incursion into family secrets that manages to veer perilously close to horror of the kind Shirley Jackson created with her chilling story The Lottery. It does involve a little stretch of the imagination and acceptance, but when you think of it, how many times did you go to a family event where someone humiliated you, and instead of leaving — as logic would have it — your parents bravely kept face and soldiered on as if nothing happened? Right. So see this movie on VOD or Netflix and let its strange, chilling backwoods beauty haunt you like it did me.