Editor's note: Ibad Shah is one of four recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2014. The scholarship meant he participated in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival for aspiring film critics started by Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor of Indiewire.
Immediate response to a festival like Sundance is often for its most high profile, audience-friendly, breakthrough hits. Oft-spoken about films include the award-winning competition titles “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “James White.” The risk of showing this many high-quality films over the course of a week is that certain types of stories rise to the maximum buzz available, while many other gems remain to be discovered for remaining interested buyers.
Matt Sobel’s debut “Take Me to the River” is one such find, a film with a passionate understatement that might have made it naturally stand out less than some of the higher-profile festival favorites but remains a personal highlight in my own festival-going experience, only growing in estimation more impressively the more I reflect on it. The central emotional elements of the film feel organic and realistic, but they soon drive the story into darker, unsettling territory. It’s as if you’re witnessing a quiet nightmare that never quite makes you scream.
The film takes place on a Nebraskan farm on the occasion of an annual family reunion. 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) is brought there from the West coast by his liberal parents—his Jewish father (Richard Schiff) and his native Nebraskan mother (Robin Weigert). They refuse to allow him to disclose his homosexuality to his more conservative extended family, from whom he's largely distanced aside from the young girls who appreciate his artistry. Ultimately, the family comes to suspect something much more perverse of Ryder. The film from there descends into a disturbing unraveling of the dark histories at the center of his large family. Ryder’s increasing discomfort with his surrounding circumstances makes for a weighing viewing experience, tapping into the disturbing and poisonous roots of some close families.
I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Sobel during the festival, and he talked a little about how that arc was achieved. “The flow of the story was something that I had scripted to gently lean into almost a type of surreality. But to do so subtly and gently so that there would be no point at which the audience would feel, ‘Oh my God, like, I just, did this just become another movie?’”
Logan Miller is particularly strong as the center of the film, whose alienated point of view we penetrate as he floats aimlessly to a place that was once so familiar to him yet is now distant as he comes of age. Sobel was interested in Miller projecting this awkwardness as much as possible. “The first time we met each other at a general meeting, we got quite personal real fast. Like, I wanted to see sort of how he would deal and how to portray feeling as uncomfortable as this kid is for the entire length of the film. Usually like some characters get a break, but he never really does. I think we did an improv where he was telling his mother about the thing he was most ashamed about, and I told him the thing I was most ashamed about in my life. And I told him, like, ‘you can choose not to tell me what the thing is — you know, just imagine like your equivalent of what I just told you. And now let's drop into the improv.’ And yeah, we've spoken about it since and he told me that it made him quite uncomfortable from the get-go, which for me was like an A+ sign. He passed with flying colors.”
The improvisation on set was Sobel’s way of getting the actors into the characters, especially for the younger actors who play into some of the more insidious strands of the story. “I mean, we definitely gave a toned down description of some of the darker elements of the story to the child actress. We did not feel like it was necessary for them to know everything about the story. But everything should be a game when directing a child, I think. So whether that's like, um, literally like a game of like tag or something within a scene or something more subtle like whispering into Molly's ear before a scene a secret, and then telling her like 'whatever you do make sure Ryder doesn't find out your secret during this scene.' And then telling Ryder like 'whatever you do, just make her figure out her secret,' and then seeing how that would play out. Because then something active and real is happening that is not pre-planned. And I think when you try to lock into a rehearsed plan with a child actor it becomes a problem… we would start like an improv and I would say, like, 'as soon as I hand you this prop, then we're gonna start the scene.' You know? So we had the cameras rolling and we would start this kind of, like, improv between Ryder and Molly. Maybe get an energy going? And then I would just sort of say 'action' and now they would drop into the dialogue.”
I was still interested in how much the film’s initial realism provides insight into Sobel’s own adolescence. And while he’s written a story that is removed from his own past, he says he remained true to the spirit of the Nebraskan setting. “The dialects and the patterns of speech in the film are lifted from conversations I've had with my family. So I had to get the voice particularly of my mom out of my head when casting, and with directing, because you have to like see what's actually in front of you rather than try to make what's actually in front of you into something else….all of the dramatic elements of this story are entirely fictional, but the place is real. That is my family's farmhouse in the film. That's the house my mom grew up in. And that reunion really happens every year there. And even some of the costumes are actually my family's clothes.“
“I do think that actually like I learned a lot about my relationship with my mother while writing this and working on it with Robin [Weigert]. I'm an only child, and, mothers and other only sons have a special relationship I think. And there's a lot of, like, loving and almost too like a cloying degree that goes on like a little bit later in adolescence than it might, like, if you were not an only child? And, yeah it's just sort of this interesting dynamic between boy and his mom where it's kind of true to my mom and me. Where, like, both of us know that this tickling and nicknaming is gonna have to end at some point but neither one wants to be the person to say it's gonna be today. They just sort of want it to be kind of like understood that we're never gonna do that again. We've now crossed into the phase of adulthood.”
That mother and son dynamic and sense of mutual commitment is at the soul of the film, and Sobel’s own parents were at the festival serving as associate producers on the film. “They played a huge role in this movie in making it, yeah. They were the locations department; they were script advisors; they were emotional support throughout the entire thing.”
His extended family also offered support, emotionally and otherwise, and he is eager for them to see it. “I am very interested to see their reaction…honestly they've been more interested to see, like, places that they know and people that they know in film. And so I'm not really sure what the conversation will be like after it, but they were completely supportive of the project when we were doing it. They gave wildly of their time and resources to help us and I am very thankful.”
The arrival of his film at Sundance is an emotional homecoming for Sobel, who has been attending the festival for years. “This is literally like a dream come true for me. I started coming when I was 13, and the first movie I ever saw was in the Library Theater. And so to be able to come back, now 14 years later and premiere there was the best time of my life.” Now that he has gotten his debut out there to decent acclaim, he can shift his focus in a drastically different direction. “Yeah. I've been working on a science-fiction film for the last couple years set in China about these orphaned sisters who are recruited by a Chinese sports camp to be trained as Olympic synchronized high-divers…I wanna do something, after you finish a project you want to do something completely different? I spent something like almost 7 years thinking about this, and the next one's gonna be completely different. People are gonna say exactly what they mean, like this whole tactic of emotions are gonna be big and bold and it's gonna be a love story, and yeah it's gonna be totally different. Completely different!”