While it could have very easily descended into movie-of-the-week territory, Benjamin Ratner’ Canadian drama Down River eschews cliché in a thoughtful, well acted look at several generations of women at crossroads in their lives. More than just a film about friendship, it more loving depicts the advice that friends choose to take under advisement or to forget about as they see fit. Instead of wallowing in tired platitudes about sisterhood and finding one’s voice, Ratner treats his characters like the adults that they are, while bringing to the surface the subtle character details that are stunting their growth as people.
Pearl (Helen Shaver) has been there and done everything one can do in life, but she’s growing old and getting sick, something she only takes seriously when she can no longer put it off or bear the pain she’s obviously feeling. Pearl has become a surrogate mother to three artistic types with very different sets of problems, but ones that she has particular experience with either personally or through the people that have floated through her life. Fawn (Gabreille Miller) is a struggling actress unsure of her career, her fervent faith in God, and her engagement. Aki (Jennifer Spence) is a painter who realizes that the window to make a name for herself might be slipping, leading to her making some ill advised decisions to get ahead. Harper (Colleen Rennison) is a singer-songwriter who has gotten through life mostly just by using the people around her to do her bidding, a lifestyle choice that will cause her to have to choose between her current loutish boyfriend or the ex-girlfriend that she has a far deeper romantic connection to.
Inspired by Ratner’ relationship to his own personal mentor growing up, the film has a lived in quality that doesn’t need much explanation. It gets started off quickly with no need for filling in any backstory. These characters are so recognizable from the start that it doesn’t matter that it essentially begins somewhat mid-story. More than just a sage advice giver or a shoulder to cry on when things get hard, Pearl is the kind of person everyone wants in their life because she has the capacity for honesty without being harsh. She’s truthful, but never hurtful; the sign of a truly giving person, and considering the amount of help the people who come into her orbit need, it’s something that requires a lot of patience.
That patience and honest is captured wonderfully by Shaver, who’s nothing short of extraordinary here. She’s honest with everyone about their problems, and honest with herself about her own issues (seemingly for the first time when she runs into her ex-husband and attempts to make contact with her estranged daughter), but while she gives without end, she never takes nearly as much in return. Shaver does a great job of giving a performance that has to be commanding by necessity. She has to be believable as the person who makes people stop and take in every word she has to say, and she does a brilliant job of it, essentially shutting down whoever she happens to be in a scene with.
I mean that as a compliment to Shaver and to Ratner’ writing and the supporting cast. It never comes across like someone delivering three separate grand speeches that will serve as points of reflection in the lives of these people. These are friends asking for guidance, not for Shakespearian eloquence and the no-bullshit tone set by Ratner and Shaver goes a long way in putting the other three story threads into sharper focus.
Miller does fine work as the conflicted actress who might only for the first time be realizing that she has a lot of untapped potential she’s never been brave enough to explore. Spence effectively conveys the kind of malaise artists tend to get in their 20s where they have to decide what they’re willing to do in order to achieve success. But the real stand out here is Rennison’s live wire musician, full of passion and cunning, but with little understanding of how her actions affect others. It’s an excellent depiction of someone who wants to be loved at all costs despite never wanting to be bothered with giving anything back. She’s the almost exact opposite of Pearl, a dynamic that helps to make a confrontation between the two so much more emotional and special to behold.
Once the film sets things up with everyone around Pearl, Ratner wisely decides to shift the focus almost exclusively to Pearl for a while, and although that’s welcome, it’s hard not to wish that Shaver have more time to herself given the twist the story takes on. The only stumbling point of the film, and it might be on purpose despite it not really working, is that Pearl has earned some peace. She gets it to some extent, but the film could do with a bit more of her. Even if she’s just sitting in a room reading a book to herself, Shaver is so good she probably would have found a way to make it riveting to watch. Still, Down River is a lot better of a “chick flick” (a bit of a misnomer since this film could be told with male leads and little would change) than audiences have gotten in quite some time.