Down River has so much emotion in it, the film is almost bursting at the seams to contain all of it.
Actor turned filmmaker Ben Ratner pushes his four lead actresses to the brink of hysteria, but for fathomable reasons. Harper (played by Colleen Rennison) struggles as a lowly musician who’s losing touch of her sexuality, Fawn (played by Corner Gas’ Gabrielle Miller) is an actress who’s feeling a disconnect between her career and her personality, and Aki (played by Jennifer Spence) is figuring out that the world of modern art isn’t all that it’s cracked out to be.
These women are binded together by Pearl, a humanizing and wise security blanket played wonderfully by Helen Shaver. Whenever these creative artists need a shoulder to cry on or to rest their heavy head, Pearl is always there to lend an ear. Pearl is hampered by her own hangups, but she’s willing to put the needs of others in front of her own woes.
Ratner has built a very commendable character study that uses conventions that have been contrivingly used before. They feel more authentic in Ratner’s Down River than in the latest Tyler Perry joint, which also helps flesh out each of these distraught characters.
Down River also captures the scene of the working artist well, but the director’s self-penned screenplay only goes so deep. I think about last year’s disappointedly overlooked Looking is the Original Sin and remember how filmmaker Gail Harvey was able to represent an obsession towards a desired craft as both a blessing and a burden.
I don’t want to compare Ratner’s laudable indie to Harvey’s work, but it did feel as if Ratner was only showing the audience a glimpse into the stressful world of the arts. Movie goers see the road bumps that occur with each career, but the perseverance these women hold onto is kept at a distance.
Down River, however, works its best when the women are left to carry their own stories and give the audience a frank view of their personal lives. Rennison, Miller, and Spence put in admirable performances that are fully believable each step of the way. Ratner could’ve slightly reeled in how loud his movie becomes (especially during Rennison’s outbursts towards those she loves), but those explosions of emotional extremity pack a solid punch.
When the movie isn’t shouting, Ratner is subtly relaxing his audience with lovely location shooting and music. Rennison shines with her musical talents and gives the film that poignant extra push that’ll touch movie goers.
It feels as if a lot of heart and patience went into Down River, even though last minute morality talks with Pearl seem a bit rushed when the film is seeking out overall messages. It’s an indie with moving resonance, and an exemplary actor’s piece that’s sensitive with its sentimentality.