I came into “Take Me to the River” with little knowledge as to what the movie was about, and perhaps this is the best way to approach it. At first it looks to be a tale of a gay teenager dealing with his conservative relatives who have yet to understand how human nature really works, but then it takes a sharp left turn to reveal it is really about deep dark family secrets which are revealed in a wordless way, and the psychological impact it ends up having on its audience is far more profound than we could have ever seen coming.
We are introduced to Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay California teenager who is going with his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert) and dad Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder is intent on revealing his sexuality to everyone there, but his parents encourage him not to. Shortly after he arrives, he is treated with suspicion from others as his red shorts look like a pair of swimming trunks and his glasses resemble something which came out of the 1980’s. His cousins, however, are crushing on him as he makes them special drawings, and they find him wonderfully rebellious. But then things go awry during a moment between him and 9-year-old Molly when she comes out of a barn with a bloodstain on her dress. Ryder is immediately suspected of abuse by his uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton), but he makes clear he didn’t do anything to her.
Now revealing more about “Take Me to the River” from there is a bit tricky because it is better not to know too much about the movie beforehand. For a time, I thought I knew where the movie was going to go, but then it becomes more like a thriller. This is especially the case when Ryder is invited to a supper with Keith and his family where Keith looks to make amends with him, but his laser-like stare indicates he has something quite devious planned for his nephew, and we are just as in the dark as Ryder is.
This movie marks the feature film directorial debut of Matt Soebel who also wrote its screenplay, and he does an excellent job of putting us right in Ryder’s shoes. Like Ryder, we have little idea of what’s going on and it leaves us with an inescapable feeling of dread. And like “The China Syndrome,” it doesn’t have, or even need, a music score to underscore the tension which continually builds up. We don’t really hear any music until the very end, and when that final song comes on, I felt like breathing a sigh of relief as the tension finally lifted.
This is also a motion picture which derives its power from what is not said more than what is. Soebel is not interested in spelling everything out to us as our imaginations are capable of generating things far more frightening, and when the story comes to hint at a deep dark family secret, we cannot help but be unsettled at what that secret could be.
But as much as “Take Me to the River” sounds like a thriller, it is also a coming of age story as Ryder comes to better understand the people around him and develops a stronger compassion than he ever had before. The fact he is gay eventually becomes a tiny issue as their bigger things to undercover which has left his family members with very nasty emotional scars. This is saying a lot because many coming of age movies don’t come constructed like this, and it makes this one all the more unique.
I was very impressed with Miller who left a strong impression on audiences in “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” We never catch him portraying a typical teenager, let alone a gay teenager, but instead a regular kid who is caught up in a situation he can’t stay one step ahead of. I also liked Hamilton’s performance as Keith because it shows him to be quite the poker player. But the most impressive performance in “Take Me to the River” comes from Robin Weigert as Cindy. At first, she makes Cindy an overprotective mother, but her actions come to reveal someone who has suffered a serious trauma she can never fully make peace with. Weigert, just with a look, shows us how deep her emotional scars go, and it’s always impressive to see any actor pull this off without having to spell it out for the audience.
There’s always something to be said for a movie which catches you by surprise, and “Take Me to the River” is certainly one. I went into it not knowing much about it, and it took me on a ride unlike few others I have been on in recent years. In a time where movies are bound by formulaic standards and studio executives who are hell bent on starting the next big franchise, it’s nice to know there are still filmmakers out there making movies which go against the grain. Not everything can be the same, and in the end, everyone needs some variety as they can get easily bored.
If you love movies which break the mold, then “Take Me to the River” is one you need to check out. When it comes to humanity, there’s always something more to a person than meets the eye. While you might think individuals can be easily divided into groups of people you feel you can easily identify, this movie comes around to remind you this it is not as easy as you think. Family secrets are never easy to unveil, and this movie serves as a reminder as to why. I look forward to what Sobel has in store for us next.
When it comes to teen movies, I live for those which take the adolescence seriously. Those years can be rough and tumble ones, filled of strong emotions which can overwhelm our small little worlds to an unbearable degree, and this is reflected in “The Breakfast Club,” “Pump Up the Volume” and “The Spectacular Now.” However, most teen movies deal with those years in a shallow manner to where they do nothing more than magnify the fears we have, or had, of being seen as unpopular or horribly isolated from our peers. Going into “Love, Simon,” which is based on the book “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli, I figured it would be one of the shallower motion pictures involving teen life as its poster features the cast in all their clear-skinned glory. Surely some of these stars had to deal with acne, right?
“Love, Simon” ends up falling into the middle space of realistic and shallow teen movies. Some parts of it feel forced to where they belong more in a network sitcom, but others strike at the truth of growing up in a way few other movies have recently. In fact, this may be the first movie in which we eagerly await to see two guys kiss. Many were revolted by such a sight in the past, but these days we accept it because love is far more an attractive thing than hate. Realizing this, it makes me believe we have evolved as a society even more than we already have.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is your average teenager who comes from a good home with loving parents and a sister who looks to become a world class chef in record time. He also has a great group of friends he can confide in any time, and this made me very envious of his life as it didn’t feel like I always had that when I was his age. But Simon does have a big secret, and he doesn’t need to spell it out for us. He is gay and has yet to tell his family and friends, and the only way he can discuss his sexual orientation dilemma is with his email pen pal who is also contemplating how he can come out to his own family and friends.
Right from the start, I realized “Love, Simon” is a groundbreaking movie as the filmmakers were not about to paint the majority of the characters in such broad or obvious strokes. I was constantly reminded of the scene from “Clueless” in which Murray tells Cher that the boy she wants to have sex with is in fact a “disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy.” While homosexuals might, and I strongly stress the word might, have been easier to spot in the past, such stereotypes we are now largely irrelevant as we have no business judging anyone as what we say about others speaks far more about who we are.
“Love, Simon” also takes place in a time where our lives have long since become dominated by social media and cell phones. In the past, we could leave our school lives behind once we went home, but kids today cannot do the same as their friends and enemies continue to exert a strong hold over them via the internet, and nobody these days can live without it let alone a cell phone.
Simon is able to keep his sexual orientation a secret even as he reaches out online to another young man who is considering coming out to his parents. Things, however, become complicated when the annoying class nerd, Martin Addison (Logan Miller), discovers Simon’s secret and threatens to blackmail him unless he can set him up with one of his very pretty friends, Abby (Alexandra Shipp). From there, Simon’s life heads into a spiral of sorts as he is forced to lie to his closest friends and comprise their relationships, all in an effort to keep his secret even more secret than ever before.
One of the key elements of “Love, Simon” is how our main protagonist is always trying to find out the true identity of his email pen-pal, Blue. The filmmakers tantalize us with the possibilities of it being this or that person, Director Greg Berlanti teases us with what could be obvious answers, but he instead invites us to see past what we thought we saw and see the bigger picture we have no business denying ourselves. Movies in the past have played on what we think homosexuals look, how they act and dress like, but this one makes how nothing is ever clear cut as it seems.
The only character who you could say exhibits such stereotypes is Ethan, an out-and-proud teenager played by Clark Moore. Ethan doesn’t try to hide who he really is from anyone, nor should he, but he does have a key scene with Simon where he explains how his coming out was not as easy as it seemed. In retrospect, I wished the filmmakers had dug a little deeper into Ethan’s character, but to their credit, they do give him some of the movie’s best one-liners (the “gangbanged by TJ Maxx” line is classic).
I also really enjoyed the camaraderie Simon has with his best friends played by Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, and Katherine Langford, whose character fares much better here than the one she played on “13 Reasons Why.” Seeing these friends have a great time with one another reminded me of the friendships I had during my high school years. It’s those friendships who help us get through the worst of times, and being a teenager can really suck more often than not. When Simon’s friendships become threatened, it’s painful to watch because losing a friend can seem so infinitely painful to where the heartache seems impossible to cure.
As for the character of Martin, he reminds of the kind of guy I never wanted to be seen as in high school. You know, the guy completely unaware of how annoying he is to others and who thinks so highly of himself that he cannot see the truth of what’s going on around him. The scene where he professes his affection to Abby at a football game is one of those horrifically cringe-inducing moments we all hope and pray never to get caught in, and Miller sells the moment for all the humiliation it is worth.
Simon’s parents are played wonderfully by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, and they present the typical loving couple and parents we always hope to see in movies like these. Garner in particular has a wonderful scene with Robinson as she professes how proud she is of him for coming out. Duhamel, however, has a scene with Robinson where he accepts his son for who he is, and it feels like laughable for reasons I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t intend. Still, it’s fun to see Duhamel come to see how the music he loved in the past is no longer cool.
“Love, Simon” also features a pair of sublime supporting performances from Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell, both who look like they are having the time of their lives. Hale plays Mr. Worth, the high school’s vice-principal who tries much too hard to fit in with a youthful demographic who will never see him as cool, especially when he is so busy taking away their cell phones at any given opportunity.
As for Rothwell, she plays Ms. Albright, the school’s drama teacher who is directing a production of the musical “Cabaret.” Her reactions to her students’ talent, or lack thereof, are priceless as she wonders how she went from doing “The Lion King” on Broadway to ending up here. Just watch Rothwell as she reprimands a pair of immature students who make fun of others for being different. The way she handles them could have been cliched, but it leads to one of the biggest laughs “Love, Simon” has in store for its audience.
In some ways I wish “Love, Simon” had dug even deeper into its subject manner. Many scenes ring true in the ways teenager act and live their lives, but it only gives so far beneath the surface of things to where this comes close to seeming like a missed opportunity. All the same, to have a movie like this one which the life of an adolescent seriously is always a wonderful gift, and this one definitely qualifies.
In the past, gay-themed or LGBT movies were treated with latex gloves as studios feared general audiences would not be quick to accept homosexuals in love. But with movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right,” we were not given gay love stories, but love stories as passionate as any we had ever watched before. The audience I saw “Love, Simon” with cheered loudly at the sight of two boys kissing each other, and I like to think this shows how far we have come in accepting things which never should have been quicker to accept in the past. Besides, we should agree seeing two boys kiss is a far more pleasing sight than seeing teenagers gunned down by a madman with an assault weapon, wouldn’t you say?
Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes us back to the year 1971 when psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted the infamous experiment which had 24 students playing the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison located in the basement of the school’s psychology building. Things start off well, but the experiment soon goes out of control when the guards become increasingly abusive to the prisoners, and Zimbardo is unwilling to stop their brutality as he is infinitely curious to see what it will produce. Zimbardo was out to test his hypothesis of how the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. The experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, but it ended after 6.
What results is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences from the year 2015 as a cast of actors including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, and Logan Miller find themselves caught up in the experiment’s grip to where the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Whereas previous films have observed this experiment from an academic standpoint, this one observes it from an emotional one.
I got to talk with Kyle while he was in Los Angeles to promote “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” His previous films as writer and director were “C.O.G.” in which a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm, and “Easier with Practice” which tells the tale of a novelist going on a road trip with his younger brother to promote his unpublished novel.
Ben Kenber: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most movies you don’t watch as much as you experience.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez: I’m finding that out, yeah (laughs).
BK: There are only so many movies you can say that about. “Deliverance” is a good example of that.
KPA: I was really humbled. When the movie first played I think the first question at the Q&A was, “Did you feel like this movie was an experiment on the audience?” I was so taken aback by the question not in a negative way, but because no one had seen the movie before. I was actually working so hard to not overburden the audience with the story. We even tempered it down a lot. They were stripping guys by the end of day one. I think by the end it’s supposed to become burdensome to watch, and I embrace it now that that’s the reaction, but I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. So the first time the movie screened I was like. okay, it is playing this way to people and I know I can just embrace that now which is good. I hope not every movie I make is like that, but hopefully the movie earns it and then people appreciate the challenge of the experience of watching it.
BK: I remember hearing about this particular experiment while I was in a psychology class in college, and we even watched a documentary about it as well. The one thing that stood out to me the most was when the prisoners started saying “prisoner 819 did a bad thing,” and they kept saying it over and over. I kept waiting for that moment to come up in this movie.
KPA: Oh yeah. I felt like that was one of the really iconic things that you hear. You can hear it over and over and over again in your head, and I think we even joked at one point that they could release a teaser that was just that over and over again. That was interesting to me. As I read the script I had all these things that seemed larger than life, and when you read about it or saw the footage you’re like oh these things really did happen. The Frankenstein walk, to me, is so bizarre and so odd, yet it’s a real thing. To try to make a film that embodies that sort of spirit was hopefully the aim.
BK: This movie is “based on a true story,” but you didn’t use that phrase at the start of it. I was glad you didn’t because this phrase has long since lost its meaning.
KPA: I kind of fought for that a little bit actually. My whole argument was that marketing is going to say it no matter what. I’m a firm believer that you want the movie to stand on its own regardless of marketing, but at the same time I just don’t know anyone that would go to a movie called The Stanford Prison Experiment and not know anything about it and not know it was based on a true thing. I talked about it when I first got involved in the film that “based on a true story” means nothing anymore. The movie I was using for an example was the one where Eric Bana plays a cop who is hunting demons in New York City (“Deliver Us from Evil”), and the trailer says it was “based on a true story.” There are demons in New York; we know this as fact, right? There are not people who hunt demons in New York. Maybe there’s someone who said he does once, but that doesn’t mean it is based on a true story. So, it just doesn’t mean anything to people anymore and it doesn’t carry any weight or value. I tried to think of some other vernacular it could be. I didn’t want it to be like this is a true story because then that says everything in it is true, which is a lie. As soon as you make a movie on anything, nothing in it is true anymore.
BK: With movies based on real events there are dramatic liberties taken, but with this one it sounds like that wasn’t entirely the case.
KPA: I think we reduced the dramatic liberties quite a bit. I think if you look at a movie, for example, like “Lincoln” which takes voting public record and changes it. I don’t mean to slam the film, I like the film quite a bit, but when they’re voting they change the numbers to make it more suspenseful. I don’t think we took any liberties anywhere near that extreme. Maybe some people who were in the experiment could argue that it wasn’t really that intense or something like that. Others may argue that the intensity comes from putting the camera in their faces or the artistic representation of it. Two of our biggest liberties are when Ezra (Miller) and Brett (Davern) escape the prison. In real life the guy really did take a panel off. He was a guitar player and took the panel off with a sundial, broke the lock and I think they tried to open a door, but a guard was there and admonished them and told them that they had to fix the lock. We added an extra couple hundred feet. When we were doing that we said that we were gonna add this chase sequence because the movie needs to breathe and open up a bit. I thought Tim (Talbott) had done a really good job with that in the script. But then when Phil (Zimbardo) comes around and the other guys, there’s a reason we never see them touch them because they didn’t. That was where we were embellishing a little bit for the sake of the narrative, but we’re not abandoning the fundamentals of what this experiment was about. Those guys did not touch them or physically harass them so we didn’t show that, and having Phil involved was a really good and constant reminder of what those fundamentals are that we shouldn’t change. The ending, when they called it off, actually Phil and Christina kind of said that they needed to call this off and they came up with a plan to do it professionally. For me, you show that and there is an anti-climactic nature to that. I think the emotions are real and that they were being felt, and we just put them in at different times for the ending. I was really interested in making a film that could hold up. If you sit down and watch the documentary “Quiet Rage,” you will go oh, that is actually pretty similar. I didn’t want to make a movie that would replace that or replace “The Lucifer Effect.” I wanted to make a film that would work in tandem with those where it would feel like you could gain something a little more emotional and different than if you just did the academia side.
BK: The actors are all fantastic in the movie and they each give very intense performances. Watching them made me wonder if the movie was an experiment on them.
KPA: In a weird way, I almost wish I had this story to make interviews more exciting about these kids became their characters and I became like Zimbardo. But the truth was I think I was actually overtly aware of that potential, and actually it would have worked so hard against us. If you ask any of the guys, they will say that they had a lot of fun. You only have two options: either go down the path where everyone has fun and everyone gets along, or you gotta push it to go really extreme. I am not a big manipulator. If an actor wants me to manipulate them I will work with that, but on this film it was one of those things where it’s like when the camera’s rolling we’re on, and when it’s off be respectful. Some guys might need more space and might want to stay in character a little bit more, but it never took on the form of the experiment. We did spend two and a half weeks in that hallway, and we were sick of the hallway. We were ready to be done. Sure, some feelings were created, but I told them everyone every day that this is like a soccer game where we all shake hands at the end. So if something is going on that you’re not comfortable with, just say it. I said that probably more to the guards than the prisoners, but once it came down to doing those few physical things in the movie the actors loved it. Nick and Ezra had worked together before so they already respected each other, and they would just run through their scenes and had such a blast. For me, in a weird way we actually worked against that, and I think consequently the actors look back on it very fondly. I also think we got, for the nature of the movie and the tight shooting schedule, better stuff from them because they just felt more invigorated. I would just love to be able to build a career out of actors having good experiences. That’s my favorite party of the process, working with actors. I admire what they do so much because I never could, so it’s honoring that by working to each person. But this is the first time I ever did an ensemble piece and it was a little more about telling them hey this is what it’s going to be like, hey it’s not going to get out of control, guards you are going to follow the script and if you want to push something a little bit more than we’ll talk about it as opposed to unleashing them. There have been previous iterations of this project where that had been the aim where they try to create this potboiler environment where the actors really lose it, but I think what you get with that is more of a machismo quality. I jokingly refer to it as the David Ayer effect. I like his movies so it’s not a slam on them at all, but he’s making testosterone and there’s no doubt about it. I actually was more interested in making the inverse of that. The set was like a frat house, but the aggression was coming from a more complicated place. There wasn’t any actual physical violence. When you look closely at the movie there is no drop of blood other than one or two moments. No one was physically hurt, and so we were really careful to honor that while still creating tension.
BK: One interesting scene is when Ezra Miller’s character gets arrested as part of the experiment. He treats it like it’s no big deal at first, but then the cops slam his head on the car and his mood changes instantly.
KPA: They really did get real cops and they said arrest these guys like they are really criminals. This is something we didn’t have the money to shoot, but they actually took them to the police station and fingerprinted them and booked them and took photos of them and everything. They really put them through this simulation and it really got to them. The cops were really putting paper bags on their heads. Someone criticized the film once saying that they used too much on the nose imagery from Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the bags. I was like no, no, no, Abu Ghraib just did the same exact thing.
BK: It seems like certain audience members need to be reminded that the Stanford Prison Experiment took place long before Abu Ghraib.
KPA: Oh yeah. It’s one of those stories that’s too bizarre to be true. It’s hard to accept that it was true. I knew there was no way to succeed 100% on this but I tried to work the hardest to make a film that didn’t just always say, “Well it really did happen.” That’s not enough of an answer when you make a movie like this because you have to make the audience feel like it could have happened. I wanted it to be like, “Well I understand why it happened.”
BK: By the time the movie gets to day three, it feels like we have been with these guys for a month.
KPA: Yeah (laughs), that’s how they felt too. They really did not know how many days had passed. They weren’t sleeping which I think was the biggest thing. You can go 36 hours without sleep when you start to legitimately lose your mind, and I think that’s a huge part of what happened.
BK: The Stanford Prison Experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up being shut down after 6 days. Some have said that it wasn’t because the experiment wasn’t successful, but that it was too successful. Would you say that was the case?
KPA: I think once you talk about success of the experiment you start to bring into the question its true purpose and its ethics. I was really interested in pushing questions of things like that in the movie. At the same time, I didn’t want to fall into the question of, was this okay? People are still arguing the exact same things, so I figured we are never going to solve this. 40 years later people are still arguing whether this experiment succeeded or not or whether it should have never have ever been done in the first place. What we do know now is that the experiment would never be allowed to happen today. It was military financed. Partly because of the experiment, there are so many more checks and balances in place. When I first sat down with Billy (Crudup), one of the things he said was, “How could everyone be so naïve to not realize this would happen?” And I said, “Well of course, they could have because it hadn’t happened yet.” Now it’s easier for us to go, “Well, of course, it would have gone wrong. What were they thinking?” They were doing experiments like this all the time; simulations or recreations. This was just part of what psychologists were doing at the time. This was the time it just really imploded.
BK: That’s a good point. Ever since then we have a better understanding of the power dynamic between prisoners and guards more than ever before.
KPA: Yeah, and that’s why I added a line at the end when Billy is talking to the camera. He says, “There was no sense of precedent. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” I thought that was a really important element.
I want to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.