In a post-Trump world, even the films made before the 2016 election now seem to speak directly on issues exacerbated by the American President’s rise, as anger and contempt have been brought out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Such is the case with Take Me to the River, a quietly intense film about the confrontation between social classes and seething family resentment.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Matt Sobel, the film sways between frightening and surreal as the appearance of liberal California-based city folks at a family reunion in Nebraska brings out the sinister anger that has been bubbling beneath the surface for decades.
For Sobel, Trump’s electoral victory definitely casts the film in an even more culturally illuminating light. “Though I couldn’t have predicted the extend of recent partisanisation”, Sobel tells me at the start of our interview, “I have felt for some time the widening ideological gap between the California and Nebraska sides of my family.”
Inspired in part by his own experience moving away from his Nebraska home – it was even filmed in the very house that Sobel’s mother was raised in – Take Me to the River focuses primarily on Ryder (Logan Miller), a mop-haired teenager who arrives with his mum, Cindy (Robin Weigart) and dad (Richard Schiff), at the reunion for his mother’s side of the family. Deciding that he doesn’t want to keep his sexuality a secret, his parents suggest that coming out to his extended family isn’t for the best. Before long, however, Ryder becomes the target of not just whispers behind his back, but also an accusation involving a nine-year-old cousin, Molly (Ursula Parker). Opening old family wounds, the accusation is enough to give his extended family the ammunition they need to no longer hide their contempt for the Californian outsiders.
“I tried to capture the atmosphere of that experience as accurately as I could,” Sobel tells SBS. “The farmhouse, the fields, the river – these are all the actual locations I grew up visiting.”
The story, however, does not come from his own life. Instead, Sobel took his cue from a nightmare in which he was falsely accused of a crime, using that as the basis for a story in which the truth is a casualty of changing society discourse between classes within a family. “I remember how uncomfortable it made me feel. I remember realising that anything I said to defend myself would just make the situation worse… I was seething with the feeling of injustice. My initial goal in setting out to write the film was to capture that visceral sensation.”
In the film, Ryder is targeted primarily by Keith (Josh Hamilton), his uncle who views his sister’s family with a suspicion that left somewhat ambiguous, bubbling under the surface.
“Because film is obviously visual, these 'unseen' pieces of story are barely audible whispers, buried backstories, and things that happen behind closed doors”, he says. “When audiences fill these pieces in for themselves, they become co-creators of it. I genuinely believe that stories are never fully completed by the filmmaker, but by the audience.”
Many of Keith’s actions in the film can be read, as the director puts it, as “an elaborate ploy to get back at his sister for an event that happened in their past”. The apex of this familial power-play is a skin-crawling, awkwardly funny dinner sequence between Ryder and Keith’s family that plays out a little bit like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s famous dinner table denouement. A battle of weird wits between the two that Sobel labels “creepy” but for which he chose to deliberately “lean into the uncomfortable comedy” of it.
The boundary-pushing squeamishness of this and many other scenes (including one at the titular river that might have some audiences watching through their hands in the foetal position), as well as the disturbing nature of what the film is suggesting – including potential incest and rape – are topics that Sobel was well aware had the potential to make his film difficult to take for audiences.
“I did think quite a lot about how audiences would interpret some of the more touchy subject matters. We had dozens of test screenings, making minute adjustments to the edit in between each one, to arrive at what we felt was the right balance of what is said and not said.” He adds that being an independent film helps, noting that he would have neither been granted the freedom to tackle these themes in the mainstream system nor would he have been able to tinker and tailor the film so often and carefully.
One of the stand-out details of the film, Rebecca Luke’s costume design wonderfully contrasts the pastels and floral patterns of the Nebraska relatives with the provocative city look of Ryder’s fire engine red short shorts and eclectic bright yellow sunglasses – two items of clothing literally taken out of Sobel’s own wardrobe.
“The colours that Ryder wears are extremely saturated,” he says of the costume choices, “whereas the colours that most of the other family members wear are pastel and muted. The colours of the farm however, are again, extremely saturated” he says referring to the bright greens and blues that fill the frame throughout. “This helped me articulate, perhaps subliminally, the juxtaposition of a sexually charged landscape, pulsating, vibrating, overflowing, and an extremely repressed family.”
With the political and personal divide widening not just in Trump’s America, but around the world, the themes of Take Me to the River make it an extremely potent film.
“The assumptions and preconditioning we all bring to a situation, that make open and fact-based reasoning impossible, that prompt us to jump to conclusions about others despite insufficient information, these are the troubling trends that I’m most interested in, and tried to reflect in the film,” Sobel concludes.
Take Me to the Riverscreens as a part of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on Wednesday, March 22 at 6pm. Click here for tickets. Follow the author here: @glenndunks