Downriver is the first time feature film for writer/director Grant Scicluna. It tells the story of James Levy (Reef Ireland), a young man who is back in the open world after years in juvenile detention for being an accomplice to the death of a young boy. In search of closure, the boys’ mother appeals to James to tell her where her sons’ body is. Unfortunately for James, he has epilepsy which causes him to black out and forget moments of time – namely, the death and location of his victim. Breaking his parole, James heads off to the region where the fateful incident occurred to try track down what happened on that day all those years ago.
Gloriously shot in the Middle of Nowhere, Victoria, cinematographer László Baranyai captures the rivers and forests that cover much of the mountainous state. The visuals alone add to the plot, resulting in an almost labyrinthine feel with the way the environment naturally creates winding paths through its trees. Industrial pipes are littered around the region furthering that maze-like feeling. Don’t be fooled though, this is not a straight ‘mystery’ drama with an investigation and a neat conclusion. Downriver is a lot more contemplative than that. Scicluna has constructed a plot that is more suggestive in tone and pacing, than one that follows a traditional three act structure.
This does hamper the immersion in the story at times, with some of the side characters motivations coming across quite vague and thus, some plot points appear to come out of nowhere. Throw in the occasional random character who appears without explanation in the third act, and it further muddies the plot. It’s never incoherent, it’s simply just a little confusing while you are watching it. However, on contemplation, Downriver becomes more coherent as the themes of the film rise to the surface of your memories.
If the aim was to try and put the viewer in the headspace of James Levy – who is experiencing elements of his own story for the first time – then Scicluna has succeeded. It’s not a particularly becoming trait to implement into a film, but this is not a story which is one you’re supposed to find endearing.
Reef Ireland as James is superb – managing to command the screen every moment that he is on it. Equally great is the always impressive Kerry Fox as Paige Levy, James’ mother. Her attempts to corral the people who surround the story of the death of a boy often prove fruitless. Paige has weathered years of having a son who was incarcerated, and Fox delivers the expected gravity of the situation superbly.
If there’s one complaint about Downriver, it’s that it suffers from a common error with first time films – there is simply too much subtext running throughout to make what should be an impactful story the emotional tale it should be. There is a series of unanswered questions about genital mutilations that have occurred in the region which are never fully explored; instead appearing wholly unnecessary, feeling as if it’s been added in to add a disturbing depth to the plot.
Overall, the solid central performances, the great cinematography and solid direction make Downriver a film that succeeds just a bit more than it stumbles. Scicluna is definitely a talent to keep an eye on.
Director: Grant Scicluna
Cast: Reef Ireland, Kerry Fox, Charles Grounds
Writer: Grant Scicluna