Under the Bridge Review | The Kids Aren’t Alright

by Andrew Parker

Under the Bridge is a great example of a standard issue series elevated tremendously by a talented cast putting in great work. Based in part on a true story of a shocking 1997 murder in small town British Columbia and a bestselling recounting of the events by late journalist Rebecca Godfrey, Under the Bridge has a great premise, but pitches it at the level of just another run-of-the-mill procedural potboiler. Given how fast and loose it plays with the facts of the case at hand, that makes creator Quinn Shephard’s series a bit of a let down in terms of impact and originality, but the well rounded characterizations, sense of purpose, and outstanding performances make Under the Bridge compulsively compelling viewing.

Tortured journalist Rebecca Godfrey (Riley Keough) returns to her hometown of Saanich, BC to work on a book about her traumatic experiences growing up and an examination of the “forgotten girls” who live within the government run foster care system. She arrives at just the right time for a journalist, as a fourteen year old girl named Reena Virk (Vritika Gupta) has just been murdered, and several area teens – most of them underage girls living in a group home – have been implicated in the killing. This faction of teens fashion their attitudes and actions on what they hear in pop culture and gangsta rap, dubbing themselves the CMC, the Crip Mafia Cartel. Rebecca seeks to uncover the truth about and motivations behind Reena’s murder, and in the process comes back into the orbit of a former friend, Detective Cam Bentland (Lily Gladstone), the adopted daughter of the chief of police (Matt Craven), and one of the lead investigators. Cam and Rebecca didn’t exactly leave things on good terms years ago, but they make an attempt to work in tandem and bring closure to Reena’s Jehovah’s Witness parents (Ezra Faroque Khan, Archie Panjabi).

Shephard and her team of writers and directors employ a time shifting narrative that outlines Reena’s relationship to the quote-unquote bad girls in town and the backstories of all the adult players involved. Under the Bridge follows a textbook approach to mounting a layered, character based mystery rooted in generational traumas, peer pressure, and bullying, and for the most part it pulls the structure off admirably. At times it seems like Under the Bridge is almost giving the viewer too much to work with – especially since the identity of the culprits and their motivations are made obvious early into the series – but each of the characters has a unique piece of the puzzle to contribute, making for a compelling clash of personalities along the way. Some characters aren’t who they initially appear to be, sympathetic personalities will end up doing horrible things in the name of self-preservation, and those who wear their feelings out in the open will have ample chance to show their true colours and explain themselves.

Keough and Gladstone make a formidable tandem, with the former delivering one of her best performances and the recently Oscar nominated latter further making a cast that she’s one of the finest and most underrated performers working today. But their respective characters are a bit puzzling if one stops to think about it. While Keough has clearly studied her real life counterpart (who worked extensively on the pre-production of the show before her passing in 2022), Rebecca Godfrey remains a bit of a cipher throughout Under the Bridge. We get glimpses into her past and what has been eating away at her, but the character’s overall motivation seemingly changes from moment to moment. On the flip side, Gladstone is tasked with playing a highly fictionalized character that’s an amalgamation of a bunch of different people. And yet, Gladstone is given far more interesting things to work with that Keough. They’re both good and compelling to watch, either together or apart, but the characters as written are slightly odd fits.

The real stars and standouts of Under the Bridge are its younger performers, who carry much of the heaviest lifting here. Gupta’s depiction of a young woman trying hard to break away from her stifling home life and make friends with the cool kids is gutting to behold and uniquely relatable, up to the point where she does something truly reprehensible to her own family. Chloe Guidry’s depiction of a queen bee type who might not be as hard as she claims to be is stunning in its dramatic balance and humane observation of someone who’s thoroughly unlikable and obstinate. Izzy G’s icy cold performance as the HBIC’s best friend is perfectly calculated, and Aiyana Goodfellow brings a lot of heart and empathy to her depiction of the crew member who often gets caught in the middle of other people’s bullshit. Javon “Wanna” Walton plays a young man living on the streets who is eventually brought from the periphery of the investigation and into the middle of the story, and his performance provides the lynchpin upon which a lot of the story’s machinations turn. There are plenty of seasoned veterans putting in great performances throughout Under the Bridge, but the real joy lies in watching the younger cast members take centre stage and command the viewer’s total attention.

While I’m sure the real life people who lived through the events depicted in Under the Bridge would/will have a lot to say about Shepard’s fictionalized and stylized take on things, the overall themes of race, identity, bullying, religion, and toxic peer pressure come across well. Although it will likely garner comparisons to the likes of True Detective and In Cold Blood thanks to its procedural angle, Under the Bridge hews closer to the likes of darker teen movies like River’s Edge, Mean Creek, and Over the Edge in terms of overall substance, and more like an everyday Harlan Coben adaptation or Broadchurch in terms of technical execution and mainstream appeal. Shephard and her cast show sympathy for those a community has written off as losers and degenerates before their lives have even begun to take shape. Under the Bridge is a familiar type of show, albeit one with a distinct sense of moral and ethical purpose.

The first episode of Under the Bridge is available to stream on Disney+ in Canada, with new instalments debuting every Wednesday. It is currently steaming on Hulu in the U.S.

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