A West Coast teenager's coming-out narrative gets sidetracked by unexpected family secrets in "Take Me to the River," a confidently steered first-time feature from writer-director Matt Sobel. Oblique to a fault and buoyed by a persistent unease, the movie seems unconcerned with strained credibility at many stages. Yet for every "but why …" the story engenders, there's an equally persuasive accumulation of arrestingly unsettling detail that builds its own assertive hum.
Seventeen-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) isn't too keen on the request from his mother (Robin Weigert, achingly nervous) that he not announce he's gay during their extended visit with backcountry relatives in Nebraska. His unapologetic red shorts and yellow sunglasses may just do the trick anyway, considering the stares and judgmental jokes he endures.
The little-girl contingent, though, loves Ryder's drawing skills, and 9-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker) in particular is thrilled that her cool older cousin from California will escort her to the barn, where she persuades Ryder to play something called "chicken fighting." Sobel never shows anything past their initial conversation, but when Molly returns screaming, a bloodstain on her dress, the specter of sexual abuse fills the air, with Ryder the suspect, and Uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton) the avenging, disturbed dad.
From there, Sobel engineers a dread-filled, twisty limbo of defensiveness and alienation that initially sees Ryder — begrudgingly, again, at the behest of his increasingly regressive mother — spending the night in an abandoned house on the property as a safety measure.
One of Sobel's shrewdest narrative what-ifs is teasing us to speculate on how or whether Ryder declaring his sexuality upfront would have changed anything or if Ryder's later insistence on using it as an argument for innocence would make a difference.
The thick air takes an even stranger turn when a suspicious peace offering comes from Uncle Keith, and Ryder — whose name becomes literal when he's sent a horse as transport — obliges the invitation to his house like a fairy-tale figure entering an endangered forest.
This is where motivation and believability take a perceptible dip, and the cloud of menace and manipulation edges close enough to improbability that one wonders if Sobel's formidable atmospheric gifts — including rural cinematography from Thomas Scott Stanton that simultaneously evokes beauty and fear — have no real follow-through.
But pockets of thematic resonance arise nonetheless about the mysteries of pubescent sexuality, precocity, protectiveness and cultural conflict. The steadiness of the performances helps, especially Miller's lonely confusion, Weigert's motherly apprehension and young Parker's innocent brazenness. (Hamilton, meanwhile, tasks his piercing eyes and calm tone with a boatload of unnerving.)
When Ryder, prompted at his uncle's dinner table by a hesitant discussion of his interests, warbles a self-composed, blatantly homoerotic song, the moment is narratively left-field. Yet it's also quietly powerful about the peculiar, peekaboo nature of identity no matter the circumstance.
After Molly and Ryder are given a chance to repair their bond once more — a scene now energized by worry — a key revelation lends much-needed context to the curiosities lingering in the moviegoer's mind. "Take Me to the River" reaches its end sadder and wiser if not satisfactorily complete as a psychodrama. But Sobel thrives on the unevenness, and it gives his admirably off-putting wade into fractured-family waters its own specialized charge.
'Take Me to the River'
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Landmark NuArt, West L.A.