Down River opens its heart

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      Starring Helen Shaver, Jennifer Spence, Gabrielle Miller, and Colleen Rennison. Rated 14A.

      The spirit of Vancouver acting great Babz Chula hovers over this portrait of a tough matriarch looking after her ad-hoc family. But you don’t need to know the back story to enjoy Down River, a multilayered character study with a strong B.C. accent.

      Written and directed by local actor Benjamin Ratner, the film largely takes place on the grounds of a Robson Arms–type apartment complex. This hive buzzes around Pearl (The Color of Money’s Helen Shaver), a reluctant queen who has collected a number of needy bees.

      Chief among the needers is Aki (Jennifer Spence), a budding painter paralyzed by her own unsocialized behaviour—partially thanks to an overbearing Japanese-traditionalist father (Hiro Kanegawa). Next is Harper, a self-destructive singer played definitively by real-life rocker Colleen Rennison. The most seemingly independent is Gabrielle Miller’s aptly named Fawn, a TV actor about to break through but held back by doubts, some of which are projected onto her insecure boyfriend (Peter Flemming), who is tortured by her fundamentalist views on premarital whoopee.

      The pansexual Harper, meanwhile, is playing tug of war with a trust-fund hipster (Teach Grant) rapidly losing patience. Eventually, Aki musters enough courage to catch the eye of an avaricious gallery owner played by Brian Markinson, one of many memorable supporting actors. Comic veteran Jay Brazeau has a rare straight role as a caring neighbour whom Pearl takes into her confidence when repeated medical visits reveal that her health is failing dramatically. Shaver also has an impressively adult tête-à-tête with Tom Macbeth, as her character’s ex—a confab revealing Pearl’s iffy connection with her own kids and the importance of passing on wisdom to the three younger women in her life.

      Down River uses Vancouver settings to beautiful effect, but Ratner and cinematographer Larry Lynn (Chula’s widower, as it happens) are particularly good in small spaces, as in Harper’s exciting musical sequences. Because of the tale’s essential honesty and sober intentions, the filmmakers sometimes try a bit too hard for comic relief, with most of that burden falling on the spunky Spence, who’s married to Ratner. In the end, though, the film’s small failings are like those of the characters themselves: just a few more reasons to open your heart.