Ben Ratner’s film Down River, staring Helen Shaver, Gabrielle Miller, Jennifer Spence and Colleen Renninison, gives a vivid look on the struggles of three very different women and how all they all find solace in the same woman. This film is primarily based on Babz Chula, an important figure in the Vancouver arts scene who was a maternal figure to everyone. Shot in the beautiful Vancouver, Ratner utilizes different images of water to express his symbolism. Down River was a beautiful film inside and out and while viewers might confuse it with a “chick flick” at first, they will soon find out that even men can relate.
Helen Shaver plays Pearl, a very homely person who plays as the personal anchor for Fawn (Gabrielle Miller), Harper (Colleen Renninison) and Aki (Jennifer Spence). She helps prevent them from breaking down. She gives everything from pep talks to marijuana joints. These four women have very different struggles in their lives. Akiko is an artist who struggles with trying to sell her art and please her father; Fawn is an actress who struggles with her husband, her faith, and her career; Harper is a musician who struggles to grow up; and Pearl struggles with pancreatic cancer, a battle that she keeps secret from the rest of the women. Ratner illustrates these struggles so beautifully and makes us annoyed with these women but cry for them at the same time.
The stand-out performance definitely goes to Colleen Renninison. She plays Harper, a musician who sings beautifully but has everything else done for her. She sleeps with a man to pay her rent and blames everyone else for her own problems. I found her one of the most unlikeable characters but by the end of the film, when she wasn’t screaming in anyone’s face or taking advantage of people, that hatred completely went away. To get a good example of one of her screaming matches, look out for the scene where she and Pearl face off after she steals drugs from her.
Like the multiple images of water, Shaver was extremely relaxing to watch. She completely dominated that motherly role made it feet genuine. However, I felt like we didn’t really know much about her. Her past is given to us in bits but never fully connected. We see her reconnect with an old husband that she still obviously loves and try to reconnect with a daughter that seems to want nothing to do with her. I feel that if we got a glimpse into her history, then it would have given us insight on why she is a maternal figure to these women. Fortunately, it doesn’t take away from the film at all. In fact, it gives more mystery to this neighbor that everybody depends on.
Ratner is a very talented writer to be able to make me sob uncontrollably with a huge smile on their face. This film isn’t depressing but it does give a slap in the face about life. These women’s struggles are very real and while some of them have happy endings, others do not. Ratner was thinking about writing in the women’s lives after the film ends but he decided it was not needed. I’m glad he made that decision because the open ended feeling of it makes us wonder if these women learned anything from this extraordinary woman. Their lives after the film aren’t what we’re watching for. I really hope this makes it into the theaters soon because this film should not be restricted to just festival goers.