Under the Bridge


Murder mysteries usually present the offense at their center as a puzzle to be solved. There’s a reason the genre and its true crime sisters are often called “whodunits.” And that approach can work, building intricate illusions that are deeply satisfying when revealed a la “The Usual Suspects” or “Only Murders in the Building,” to name two popular titles with wildly different tones.

But this mystery-first approach obscures something essential about their ostensible subject of murder: Its human cost. Based on Rebecca Godfrey’s book by the same name and premiering on Hulu on April 17th, “Under the Bridge” captures the tragedy of homicide in a way very few of its peers have even attempted. It’s a devastating tale of development cut short as it follows 14-year-old Reena Virk and the classmates who last saw her alive in Victoria, British Columbia.

“Under the Bridge” accomplishes this feat by purposefully putting Reena at its center. She’s not a nameless body or a learning tool for anyone else. She’s an imperfect girl who’s trying to navigate her parents’ Jehovah’s Witness expectations and her own desires to rebel and fit in. She does at least one terrible thing and makes a lot of bad choices. But she’s also relatable and sympathetic, a girl who never gets out of that teenage feeling of being lost.

Riley Keough plays a wounded and perceptive Godfrey, a journalist who returns to her hometown to write a book about the teens there. She quickly stumbles into the investigation surrounding Reena’s death. More than once, we hear Rebecca say she wants to honor Reena’s life by giving readers a sense of who she was before she died. And the show puts those proclamations to work, regularly having Reena take up the frame. There are plenty of flashbacks, detailing the events that lead up to her death, yes, but also her family history, her musical tastes, her friendships, and her misjudgments.

While we see Reena choose a brutal peer group, “Under the Bridge” is clear that what happened was not Reena’s fault but rather because of the choices of teens caught in a system that happily throws them away. And from there, the tragedy just ripples out, touching nearly everyone in “Under the Bridge” and their real-life doppelgangers.

The show delves into the psyche of teenage bullying, not as some sort of freak show or grotesquery, but rather as another facet of this tragedy. “Under the Bridge” amplifies its tone in early episodes through Chloe Guidry’s Josephine Bell, her queen bee overconfidence powering some laughs and a lot of plot points, but the show also depicts a handful of moments when Josephine’s bravado falls, revealing the scared girl underneath. Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton as Warren, the lone boy wrapped up in this tragedy, is heartbreakingly sympathetic. And Aiyana Goodfellow as Dusty brings the perspective of the other girl of color, showing how both girls were struggling with an extra set of challenges bravely but imperfectly.

The teens fill up the screen–their petty grievances, faltering alliances, and lack of control forming the building blocks of this death–but, like the sun, it hurts to look directly at them. So “Under the Bridge” gives us a set of grown-ups, acting as foils of sorts. There’s Reena’s mom, Suman, played with a devastating surety by Archie Panjabi; Rebecca guiding us through the story; and her high school friend Cam (Lily Gladstone), who’s now the local cop leading the murder investigation.

Following on the heels of her Oscar nomination for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Gladstone is the marquee performer in this show, and she brings a tender earnestness to her role. “Under the Bridge” is purposeful about Cam’s identity too, touching upon aspects of Indigenous history that a lesser show would fumble or ignore. But she doesn’t outshine her co-stars like she arguably did in Scorcese’s history lesson. Here, her Indigeneity doesn’t mark her as the bearer of the worst tragedies but rather as part of a damaged and damaging society.

Both Rebecca and Cam see themselves in these teens, having lost Rebecca’s brother when they were growing up in Victoria. They recast that death onto the current one, creating a sad house of mirrors where the guilt spreads out like blood from a fatal stab wound. In fact, perhaps the most devastating line in a show full of them is when Rebecca tells Suman, “I would like to believe that when something tragic happens, it can make you more able to see the beauty that’s still left in the world. That didn’t happen for me but I hope that happens for you.”

With moments like this, “Under the Bridge” offers an unblinking look at the ways we fail each other and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves. This is a tale of how sins can haunt the living, long after the dead have gone cold. How gender, race, and privilege can increase or dissipate the consequences we face, and how that unjust system makes everything worse.

There is some healing in “Under the Bridge” but that path is narrow and incomplete. Instead, it is that pain that lingers. The pain and the call for us to better protect young people from themselves and the systems we’ve built that see them as disposable.

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