For some reason, several of the Cinequest blurbs about the films are just not accurate. So ignore what it says for DOWN RIVER. This film is about four women who live separately in an apartment building. Three women are younger (mid 20s to mid 30s?) and Pearl is 60. Harper is a bisexual (struggling) singer in a band, Fawn is a (struggling) actress, and Aki is a (struggling) artist. All three visit Pearl on a regular basis to get life advice, but none of them know that Pearl is struggling with the news of terminal cancer and won’t be with them for much longer. The film follows all four of the women in their lives and their struggles, and their friendships.
This drama has very intriguing female characters, and passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Yes, they each have a relationship with a man (a father, a boyfriend, a husband and a friend), but their lives revolve around their careers and their relationships with family and friends. These are all strong, intelligent women, even when they are failing. The very talented actresses are good looking but not unattainably gorgeous, so they are extremely relatable to everyone. But let me get back to the talent again… the four main women and the supporting cast are all amazing, and I was constantly struck by how real their performances were.
Pearl decides to keep her health issues to herself, and she deals with her cancer without any melodrama even though she is obviously in pain. She is so subtly dealing with the pain and her lack of a future that I had a constant lump in my throat watching her go through it.
I can’t really say this is a sad film, and it certainly is not depressing. There are constant hilarious moments, truly laugh out loud lines, even in the midst of the drama. But everything is very real and true to life. The women have failures and several very real problems in their lives that every woman can relate to, and sometimes they deal with those problems by crying, sometimes by kicking and screaming, but always they pick themselves up later and try to get back on track.
But Pearl isn’t going to be able to get back on track, and that constant knowledge keeps your laughter in line. And as you see how big a part Pearl plays in these women’s lives, you start to feel very empathetic knowing what they are about to go through.
In the end, Pearl is able to give them each a gift – one last piece of advice she has for each individual woman. As the movie played its final minutes I was sobbing uncontrollably, but with a huge smile on my face. You can be sad that Pearl’s life is going to end, but you have to be happy that she was able to affect so many lives, and in a way that she will always live on in these women’s hearts. Pearl’s life is ending, but these women are going to continue with theirs, and they will be so much the better for having known Pearl. So I could not help but have this huge smile on my face while I was a big blubbery mess of tears. I don’t even LIKE films that make me cry, but this film was truly full of hope and happiness and a love of life.
But bring a hanky.
The film was written by Benjamin Ratner, whom I interviewed last month. The film was inspired by a friend of his, Babz Chula, who recently died from cancer. The interview made me teary back then, and you should read it before you go if you can (and if not, read it after). Ben is a very talented writer, able to come up with this very truthful and real story of women’s lives in such a funny and dramatic way.
But he must also feel incredibly lucky to have landed every one of his actors. Helen Shaver (Pearl) shows the age of 60 to be just too young to die, and the film revolves around her nuanced performance. Gabrielle Miller plays the sweet, God loving Fawn, and also deals with some very real problems and conflictions that many married working women do. Jennifer Spence is tremendous as the usually composed Aki, and does great in her scene of morning after regret. Colleen Rennison won my heart as the troubled Harper, and her velvety voice truly melted my heart. She continually amazed me in every single scene (like seriously, I want Harper to be my real life friend). The supporting actors are no less talented, with special note given to the hilarious Brian Markinson (Otto), the wonderful Teach Grant who plays Harper’s boyfriend as an asshole who has every right to be, and most especially, Jay Brazeau as Pearl’s friend Larry. Every scene with Pearl and Larry touched me, and now I have to get a brandy snifter just so I can remember these two every evening.
The film, the actors and the characters are all Amazing and Intelligent and Funny and Heartbreaking and Truthful. I feel very lucky to have seen the film, and I hope everyone feels the same way. Put it on your schedule, and bring a hanky, but don’t worry about being depressed, I promise you’ll leave with a smile on your face.