Movies with a gay protagonist tend to make the story about the fact that the protagonist is gay, but Matt Sobel uses that fact as a jumping-off point for a much more interesting meditation on familial trauma.
Ryder (Logan Miller) is a gay, California teen who is accompanying his parents on a visit to their conservative family in Nebraska. His mother, Cindy (Robin Weigert), whose family they're seeing, wants Ryder not to mention his sexuality, as it will just be simpler not to tackle that thorny issue. Ryder's dad, Don (Richard Schiff), knows better than to contract his wife about this: it really would be easier.
It really isn't all that simple for Ryder. Distinguishing features about him like his tight shorts and colorful sunglasses tip off his more canny family members to his secret, putting Ryder in an exceedingly uncomfortable position. His young female cousins like him a lot, though, so he spends more time with them. He goes off to play with nine-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker, Louie), whose fierce, judgmental father, Keith (Josh Hamilton), is no fan of Ryder. Things get complicated when the pair comes back from playing with blood on Molly's dress near her crotch, and Ryder's family suspect the worst about him. This brings about a litany of difficult and uncomfortable situations for the family, and we learn, along with Ryder, more about their sordid history.
if this movie does nothing else, it demonstrates that ambiguity can go a long way towards creating a mood. We are generally on unstable ground in terms of what exactly is going on and what everyone's intentions are, the same way that Ryder feels. The movie features little music and what does exist contributes to the unsettling atmosphere. There is clear, unspoken tension between the members of the family, particularly towards the ones who left Nebraska for far more open-minded California. We don't know exactly what happened in the past, but it couldn't have been good.
The clear winner here is writer-director Sobel, who exudes a shocking degree of control over the material. Despite be potential sensationalism of the subject matter, the movie never feels like it is veering into overwrought territory. His compositions are frequently beautiful, taking advantage of the lush, gorgeous landscape of rural Nebraska. few other films this year use the environment as effectively as this movie does. In a place as wonderful as this, it is hard to believe that anything bad can happen, which is the trap that people who live on the coast fall into.
Thankfully, the movie never condescends to its midwestern characters. Hollywood films have a tendency to depict people from the so-called flyover states as being simple and easy to pin down. And although the characters in this film clearly identify with their home state, there is no easy shorthand being used here in place of genuine characterization. perhaps the best performance in the movie is by Hamilton, who plays Keith as a man who is seemingly interested in protecting his family above all else, but you can never get a firm grasp on what exactly he is thinking. He often fixes Ryder with and unblinking stare, refusing to reveal what is going on in his head. His performance reminded me of some of Christian Bale's more restrained work; you never know exactly what they are going to do next.
Ultimately, however, I am not positive what we are meant to take away from the movie's ending. I won't get into spoilers here, but I will say that Sobel makes a tonal decision that throws into question what his point is in telling this disturbing story. The rest of the film that precedes it, however, is impressively constructed and beautifully shot, with an undeniable feeling of dread that permeates it throughout. The only other movie I can think of to compare it to is 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, which casts a spell on you at the very beginning and never lets up. And if you've seen that movie, you will know what a favorable comparison that is to make.