The family reunion gone horribly wrong is a common cinematic trope, but not too many films use alleged sex with one’s nine-year-old cousin as trigger for drama. In that sense, Take Me to the River is a bold, if not entirely plausible, exercise in unburying the erotic secrets on top of which many family trees tend to rest. Throughout the film, writer-director Matt Sobel pits West Coast and “real American” values against each other as Ryder (Logan Miller), a California teen, goes to Nebraska with his parents to see his relatives, only to be falsely accused of child molestation in an attempt by his uncle, Keith (Josh Hamilton), to get back at his own sister (Ryder’s mom) for some very old, and very unavowable, resentments.
The film’s subject matter and bucolic setting recall that of August: Osage County. Like John Wells’s film, Take Me to the River sometimes unfolds like a bad adaptation of an otherwise fine play; the characters’ movements are too precisely blocked and their dialogue over-rehearsed, sounding stiffly adherent to the words in the script. It doesn’t help that it’s difficult to believe Ryder’s gullibility, if not willingness to be caught in his uncle’s strange web of provocations, which includes making Ryder spend time with Molly (Ursula Parker) behind closed doors after the sexual accusations.
The film is interesting for the way it has distinctly American notions of virility and masculinity rub up against each other; Ryder wears shorts, shakes hands like “a dead fish,” and strikes his uncle as “someone who’s never held a gun.” But while Sobel exerts nuance in refusing to spell Ryder’s gayness out (in the film’s Nebraska setting, all Californians might be read as gay), he overplays the binary between the provincial and the cosmopolitan by having characters mention it one too many times. Like when Molly puts on Ryder’s colorful sunglasses and asks if she looks like “a California girl,” before singing some lines from the Katy Perry song with the similar title.
The uncle’s game of incriminating his own nephew for an abuse he never committed becomes increasingly perverse as the man eventually coaches his own daughter, or so it seems, to seduce Ryder by taking him swimming in a river against his initial will and rubbing her genitals on his neck as he takes her on a piggyback ride. It’s an awkwardly shot scene, even if the unabashed approach to portraying children’s sexuality and how it’s informed by an adult’s own, is refreshing to see in an American film. But by the time we figure out the meaning of “chicken fighting” (a term the uncle uses when recounting games he played as a child), and it’s not exactly to the cathartically revealing level of “rosebud,” it’s hard not to surrender to the American family’s most resounding motto, here eventually uttered by Ryder’s mother: “We’ll go home tomorrow and we’ll never have to talk about this again.”