With the rain lashing down outside on a cold Thursday, I could think of no better way to spend my morning than huddled up in Carlton’s Cinema Nova watching a media preview of Downriver. A debut feature from Australian director Grant Scicluna, the film was first shown in last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.
Downriver follows 18-year-old James (Reef Ireland). Having just finished a lengthy sentence in juvenile prison, James heads back to his hometown by the Yarra River in Victoria. Convicted of the drowning of a young boy whose body was never recovered, he sets out to uncover a few answers about what really happened down by the river all those years ago.
Scicluna’s debut is a moody, tense film that strongly favours mystery and silence over exposition. Details of the plot seep out gradually as the sullen protagonist ignores his restraining order and takes refuge at the family home. Visited by his friend Anthony (Tom Green)—who was with James when the young boy drowned, but never confessed and got off scot-free—we learn that James may not be as guilty as his sentencing suggests. A huge part of the film’s success is in the way Scicluna holds back the details, letting things unfold in cryptic conversation while always keeping our interest. The camera lingers over Ireland’s tormented expression and sweeps across the winding Yarra, leaving us to wonder what secrets will be unearthed in James’s quest.
Though some of the dialogue forgoes realism in its attempts to sound metaphoric and poetic, the clunky writing is held up by strong performances. Ireland is arresting and deeply committed to conveying his character’s anguish, while Green is suitably distasteful as the antagonising friend hanging around like a cloud of blowflies. Kerry Fox stands out as James’ fierce yet conflicted mother, as she struggles to admit to her good-natured boyfriend (Robert Taylor) that her son is a struggling felon.
Downriver deals with silences and mood as masterfully as last year’s Oscar-nominated Carol, and Scicluna is an Australian director to watch.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
Downriver opens June 16 at Cinema Nova (380 Lygon St, Carlton) and Lido Cinema (675 Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn).