Growth and decline are inevitable in Isao Yukisada’s coming-of-age drama.
“I’ll show you my secret treasure.”
Now this is better. A short while ago, I wrote about a movie adaptation of one of Kyoko Okazaki’s manga: Helter Skelter. Those who read it may have spotted that I thought it was probably the most detestable film I’ve seen for this site, and my grudge against the movie for having the audacity to exist still holds strong. I came into River’s Edge completely unaware that it was based off a comic, and even less so that it was by Okazaki, so imagine my surprise afterwards when I learned that was just so, and that it was actually pretty good.
Set in 1994, River’s Edge concerns itself with the lives of a handful of main characters: Haruna Wakakusa (Fumi Nikaido), a typical high schooler who’s currently in a relationship with the terminally douchey Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi), whose tendencies towards bullying local nice kid Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa) brings both the latter and Haruna closer together. Yamada introduces her to Kozue (Sumire), a first year student with a part time job as a model. The four characters along with their friend Rumi (Shiori Doi) and Yamada’s girlfriend Kanna (Aoi Morikawa) amble through life at school, but underlying problems among them bubble, and their myriad vices won’t be enough to keep them at bay.
Around the 30% mark of the movie, Yamada speaks the above quote. There is a moment within most films when you believe you’ve got the themes sussed, the story pegged and the general plot points more or less mapped out internally. That tends to coincide a lot of the time with the moment when I pick a quote to use in the review. Around the time I chose the quote, it looked like a pretty straightforward teen drama that shared a quiet sense of humour not unlike Fine, Totally Fine or countless other Third Window releases. You know the ones. But River’s Edge isn’t afraid to go dark and get into the nasty details of being a lost, broken kid in a world with seemingly no parents.
Everyone’s got problems: Kannonzaki can’t express himself short of sex or violence, Kozue binge-eats and “purges” it all after, Yamada hides who he really is, stringing along the poor Kanna who really gets the short straw during this entire film. River’s Edge goes deep into looking at the coping methods the characters adopt, and what happens when things are taken too far. In a way, Yamada’s quote above sums up the film better than I expect. Everyone has something they’re keeping secret – be it homosexuality, or a diary of potential baby-daddies – and who they show these secrets to changes the very course of the film. One might be reminiscent of the films of Todd Solondz, who also frames the innate shittiness of humans within a realistic narrative and logical character choices.
River’s Edge’s defining feature is in the way it handles its story, or lack thereof. It sort of follows a three-act structure, and certainly seems that way in the first forty-odd minutes, but then the plot threads start to vanish as quickly as they’re introduced and what we’re left with is a story that feels a lot more reminiscent to real life. More important things pop up, new friends are made and old ones are lost, so it’s natural for our main characters to drift in and out of these disparate plot points. After all, the movie isn’t about a group of high schoolers digging up buried treasure, or about god knows what else but rather about the four or five main characters and the depths of shit they have to wade through, be it self-inflicted or otherwise. Their arcs are reflective of their personalities, not necessarily of anything that’s happening around them, and so the three-act structure is best seen in their action and reactions.
This sort of storytelling is difficult to pull off. The trick is to put the focus purely on the main characters, and spend time with them even if it doesn’t advance the “story” in any meaningful way. We’re here to get to the know them, and (mostly) hope things turn out all right. River’s Edge does this very nicely, giving us characters we’re not sure if we like – with the exception of Yamada, of course – but we end up rooting for. Hell, even the frankly awful Kannonzaki isn’t immune to this, and even his charms shine through… sometimes. So if it looks like the movie isn’t going anywhere, well, it probably isn’t. It’s moving at the speed of its primary characters, and though it might be tough to get into at first (no one is really given a proper introduction), it’s worth sticking around for.
It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and suffers from some strange directorial choices – such the occasional interviews which seem to serve only as a means of providing exposition which would not have otherwise fit – but River’s Edge knows roughly what it wants to do and what it will achieve. With some solid acting from the whole cast, and loaded with otherwise pretty fine filmmaking, it’s definitely worth a watch,.
Verdict: Not your typical teen drama, River’s Edge goes where it needs to, even if it does seem a bit aimless at times.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Comedy: I don’t know why I thought this was one
Class skipping: Does anyone learn anything in this film?
Where are the parents: Dancing, probably.
River’s Edge (2018)
Also known as:
Director: Isao Yukisada
Writers: Misaki Setoyama (screenplay), Kyoko Okazaki (manga)
Fumi Nikaido – Haruna Wakakusa
Ryo Yoshizawa – Ichiro Yamada
Shuhei Uesegi – Kannonzaki
Sumire – Kozue Yoshikawa
Shiori Doi – Rumi
Aoi Morikawa – Kanna Tajima