Leo Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with a doozy: “All happy familiars are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” An aphorism that holds true on any day, but for Ryder and his family, that day is today.
Ryder (Logan Miller) and his parents, Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff), drove across the country, from California to Nebraska, for Grandma’s birthday and even though they haven’t even arrived, tension is already building. “Don’t tell them you’re gay,” Cindy advises her seventeen-year-old son. Her advice is stifling — how can he not be? — but Cindy is from the Midwest and she knows all to well that the Midwest is stifling. The heat and humidity are smothering and large families tend to lean toward forced conformity. The last thing anyone wants is to ruffle some feathers.
But ruffling feathers is exactly what the California contingency does the second they arrive. Ryder — with his sunglasses, plunging V-neck t-shirt and bright red shorts — sticks out like a sore thumb. His cousins don’t quite take to Ryder, nor do the aunts and uncles, but Ryder anticipated this. He didn’t come looking for a fight, but he certainly didn’t come looking for peace.
One of Ryder’s cousins does take a liking to him, nine-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker, familiar as Jane on FX’s Louie), who teases and toys with Ryder like a well-trained pro. She coaxes him to the barn where she asks to ride on his shoulders so she can reach a swallow’s nest. Ryder hesitantly obliges. We know he shouldn’t, but we also understand the situation he is in. To assume is to accuse, and Ryder doesn’t want to accuse anyone of anything. Even if assumption is their game all along.
What happens in the barn remains off camera. Molly comes running and screaming home, a spot of blood on her dress. The family assumes molestation, but doesn’t dare speak the word. Cindy tries to plead with Molly’s father, Keith (Josh Hamilton, terrifyingly tight-lipped and stoic), thinking that Molly may have just gotten her period and freaked out. Ryder thinks that if he just tells the family that he is gay it will quiet any suspicions. Cindy knows that will just make matters worse. The word gay isn’t uttered, nor is assault, molest or any facsimile. Here unspoken assumptions are just as damaging as spoken accusations.
Take Me to the River, written/produced/directed by first timer Matt Sobel, is an excellent piece of work, imbued with a specific sense of place. The Midwest can often be a terrifying locale, one where the vastness of nature seems sinister, even while appearing pastoral. Trees loom large, obscuring a clear view, while grass grows tall to reclaim discarded machinery.
Miller excels as Ryder, the proverbial fish out of water trying to navigate a situation, that until now, he only heard snatches of around the dinner table. Weigert has the weary face of sympathy, the kind of mother who knows what ugliness her family holds and would like to shield her child from it, but knows that she can’t. Family isn’t easy, the past is never past and sometimes the sins of the parents find their way to child. You can go home again, but sometimes it just isn’t worth it.