Late in the game in Down River — around the time that all the plot complication cards have been played and all seems lost and happiness entirely unattainable for a group of Vancouverites — there’s a string of three consecutive emotional beats that illustrates how frustratingly formulaic moments lead the film’s good intentions astray. An aging woman, the default den mother to three younger women living in the same apartment building, encounters each surrogate daughter as they enter her apartment and gives them a pep talk. But it’s not just a comforting exchange, it’s the speech each of them needs, one after another after another. It’s the kind of sequence a satire of “get your life together” films would employ to demonstrate just how often these cathartic moments show up. And yet, it’s played totally straight, as if every person in crisis reaches that point and turns to the same person at the same exact time.
The second independent feature written and directed by Canadian actor Benjamin Ratner, Down River spreads the adulthood malaise of films like The Lifeguard or Girl Most Likely over an ensemble of female characters. Pearl (Helen Shaver, perhaps most notably the voice of Littlefoot’s mother in The Land Before Time) is a 60-year-old divorced woman living alone and coping with news of a grave illness. But she stands strong to support the other three younger women who frequently lean on her for guidance: Aki (Jennifer Spence, of SyFy’s Continuum) an introverted painter; Fawn (Gabrielle Miller, of Canadian series Corner Gas) a devoutly religious actress deliberating on committing to a long-term relationship or taking a big part in a new television series in New Zealand; and Harper (Colleen Rennison), a bisexual singer who has trouble containing her emotions with friends, bandmates, and lovers.
There are countless films about groups of lost men and women sorting out their lives in early adulthood, or going through a midlife crisis, or coping with mortality. As such, it’s incumbent upon each new entry in the rapidly expanding subgenre to justify why it deserves a bit of territory. Down River unfortunately can’t offer anything new to ruminate on — only a few slightly memorable scenes between predicable character arcs.
Most of the women only get sketches of backstory. Aki talks with her distant father at a golf course about her choice of profession, and the topic of conversation shifts to her dead mother. Harper has a sort-of boyfriend who supports her, but still harbors feelings for an ex-girlfriend who recently reappeared. Fawn’s fiance was previously married, and she’s been struggling as an actress for a long time. Meanwhile, Pearl chugs along, suffering the burden of guiding the younglings along as she rues missed opportunities with an ex-husband and fails to reconnect with her daughter.
It’s a strange duality that each woman’s story is both underdeveloped and yet so predictably familiar. Aki’s struggles as a painter lead her to the question of pursuing artistic passion over a comfortable career, and whether she should compromise her reputation in order to have a shot at success at a painter. Fawn’s arc, particularly what she goes through in order to land the role that could actually launch her career, is the most intriguing, until it’s anchored back to the age old crossroad of a woman choosing between her work and starting a family. And Harper, well, she mostly just lives in a tenuous fantasy world where she can do all the drugs she wants, be mean to whoever she wants, use people like Kleenex, and still have everything given to her so she can keep trying to make it as a singer. There is perhaps a TV movie’s worth of depth somewhere in each story of the four main women in Down River — though Harper’s shrill and infuriating spiral only reinforces the worst aspects of the modern wandering underemployed generation.
Down River raises more intriguing questions than it has time to explore or answer. In trying to tell four stories — about three aspiring artists and one woman who regrets not fully giving over to her artistic passions — the film ends up not fully providing a picture of any of them.