Ryder is so nervous, he’s ready to burst into flames. From his vantage point in the back seat of the family car carrying him (Logan Miller), his mother Cindy (Robin Weigert), and his father Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in the Nebraska countryside, the California high-schooler has plenty to be apprehensive about. In addition to standard-brand adolescent angst and the ordeal of socializing with dimly remembered Midwestern relatives, Ryder’s number one worry is extremely personal: Are you going to tell them I’m gay? His parents’ hasty assurances don’t help in the slightest. Ryan feels trapped.
Writer-director Matt Sobel assembles quite a cauldron of awkward social moments in Take Me to the River, his first film in the director’s chair. Ryder’s relatives turn out to be the sort of nominally polite, taciturn folks who get their kicks from pickup trucks, playing horseshoes, and cheering for Cornhuskers football. Ryder, for his part, refuses to blend in, choosing to wear a pair of red short shorts and a scoop-neck T-shirt to the big picnic lunch. A pair of his cousins razz him about his shorts in true locker-room style, but all Ryder does is mince his way through the veiled insults. All the while, mother Cindy hovers nervously, kowtowing to her family — it’s her side they’re visiting — and doing everything but holding her son’s hand as he gamely tries to relate.
The country cousin that seems to warm up to Ryder the most is nine-year-old Molly (played by child actress Ursula Parker), a pixie-ish, long-haired blond whose antics with her newfound California cousin stop just short of seeming unusually sexual for the circumstances. As written by Sobel and played with startling sensuality by little Miss Parker, Molly exudes an uncomfortable knowingness with Ryder, as if she were leading him into a strange adventure. If we were to replace an old barn with an enchanted cottage and the cornfields with a brooding forest, we’d be in deepest Brothers Grimm territory in a flash. That is, Grimm with a side order of Vladimir Nabokov. Ryder follows his little cousin to some of her favorite spots on the farm, things happen (offscreen and on), grownup tempers flare, and Sobel’s excellent cast of character actors mix it up with maximum tension and more than a little taboo-crazed queasiness.
Other reviewers may spell out Ryder and Molly’s misadventures — with Cindy and her redneck brother, Ryder’s Uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton, radiating pent-up violence), circling and swooping — but we won’t do that. You’ll have to see for yourself what a slender plot line, well-chosen parts, and skillful directing can achieve with a handful of rich characters and a deceptively peaceful setting. Behind the repressed menace of the situation and the ominous role-playing of Miller, Weigert, Hamilton, and Parker, Take Me to the River delivers the unmentionable in the guise of the unexplainable and framed in the unavoidable, for a moviegoer’s curious delight. The moral of the story: Be careful when you find yourself in Flyover Land.