‘Under the Bridge’ Review: Lily Gladstone and Riley Keough Don’t Fit in Hulu’s Emotional Teen Mystery

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One indicator that actors Lily Gladstone and Riley Keough became big deals in 2023 — through their performances in “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Daisy Jones & the Six,” respectively — is all the awards attention they received.

The other is how the new Hulu limited series “Under the Bridge” shoehorns their characters’ underdeveloped relationship into more organic parts of the narrative. It’s as if the show creators decided at the last minute that these newly minted stars needed more shared screen time — that the show was missing its Pacino-De Niro “Heat” moment.

One sitdown between Gladstone’s British Columbia cop character, Cam, and Keough’s writer character, Rebecca, holds real potential. Cam’s old friend and possibly flame, Rebecca has returned to her hometown from New York after a decade away.

Lily Gladstone in “Under the Bridge.” (Darko Sikman/Hulu)

Both actors thrive in stillness and watchfulness, and they create true intrigue as Cam and Rebecca warily and affectionately eye each other. But the magic ends as soon as it starts, with the details of Cam’s and Rebecca’s past bond left sketchy at best, and their present relationship dominated by confrontations over Rebecca’s self-insertion into the murder investigation of a 14-year-old girl who was beaten and killed during an outdoor gathering of teens.

Rebecca is based on late writer Rebecca Godfrey, whose acclaimed book “Under the Bridge” focused on the real-life 1997 murder of teenager Reena Virk in Saanich, British Columbia, and provided the basis for this flawed but moving screen adaptation by writer Quinn Shephard and showrunner Samir Mehta. But the show’s Rebecca, who interferes with the police investigation of Reena’s death and does drugs with teens, seems to embody the disclaimer at the start of each episode that this fact-based drama holds fictionalized elements.

Keough lends a misguided conviction to Rebecca’s behavior that can be interesting to watch, but we never get to know the character beyond her acting out. She returned to her parents’ home to write a book about girls in Victoria. Is she a successful writer in New York? She certainly seems entitled. The only clear fact about her history is that her brother died when she was young.

Gladstone makes a believable small-town cop, tough at times, unsure at others. But the writing for Cam — an indigenous woman adopted out of the foster system by a white cop (Matt Craven) who is now her superior and places her in front of local news cameras to demonstrate his department’s diversity — can seem too on the nose in trying to create parallels with teens in Reena’s orbit.

Rebecca and Cam often seem awkwardly superimposed on the show’s more emotionally resonant central story of Reena, her parents (Archie Panjabi, from “The Good Wife,” and Ezra Faroque Khan) and the girl’s troubled friends and acquaintances. The relationships often are fraught and sometimes toxic, but they seem authentic, in part because most of the young cast members are still teens themselves.

Vritika Gupta gives Reena an air of expectancy that endears the girl from first close-up. Gupta’s open demeanor throughout “Under the Bridge” makes Reena’s eventual fate all the more heartbreaking in signifying her lack of life experience and by extension, lack of opportunity to become a full-fledged person.

Vritika Gupta in “Under the Bridge.” (Bettina Strauss/Hulu)

Chafing at the strict rules of her Jehovah’s Witness Indian Canadian mother, and friendless at school, Reena seeks acceptance and excitement. She initially finds both in Josephine (Chloe Guidry), the Regina George of the juvie crowd. Guidry gives this character a dangerous mix of swagger, cruelty and naivete.

A student of gangster rap and mafioso John Gotti, Jo fancies herself a crime boss and adds Reena to potential members of a “gang” that includes Jo’s group home roommate Dusty (Aiyana Goodfellow). The show’s most sympathetic character apart from Reena, Dusty knows right from wrong but is estranged from her family and is too reliant on Jo to risk crossing her.

Goodfellow imparts Dusty’s internal struggle as her new friend Reena becomes the target of Josephine’s misplaced anger. Dusty bonds with Reena as a fellow person of color who also favors baggy clothes and rejects the traditional feminine beauty standards embraced by Jo and her slightly less malevolent-seeming lieutenant (Izzy G., giving great vacant stare). Jo rules through a push-pull technique particularly effective on teens who feel like outsiders.

Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton in “Under the Bridge.” (Photo by: Bettina Strauss/Hulu)

After welcoming Reena into her friend group, Jo admonishes the new girl, who is not as thin as she is, for jumping on the bed. She will break it, Jo tells her in front of the other girls. The girls of color are always in and out of favor with Jo, who assumes everyone will accept that even among outlaws, she as a white, conventionally attractive girl, naturally sits atop the social ladder. Reena’s refusal to fall in line with this thinking puts her in peril.

The most intensive study of Canadian teen behavior since “Degrassi High,” “Under the Bridge” truly envelopes us in a world of teens who smoke, drink, party at the bridge and perform disaffection so fervently that it becomes a defining trait. Watching young people make one terrible decision after another eventually grows tiresome and repetitive. But the show effectively portrays how bullying can develop and escalate.

Cam moves fairly easily in and out of the teens’ self-contained world, with Gladstone bringing a no-nonsense yet not unkind approach to the officer’s interactions with teens. Rebecca’s are always more disruptive and seemingly unaware of the power imbalance between her and the teens she meets, including Warren (Javon Walton), an unhoused boy who reminds Rebecca of her late brother. Walton lends Warren the same criminally sweetheart energy he brought to the ill-fated Ashtray on “Euphoria.”

Archi Panjabi and Ezra Faroque Khan in “Under the Bridge.” (Disney)

Panjabi gives the show’s best performance as Reena’s mother, Suman, who hews closely to the religion that embraced her immigrant family when they were unwelcome newcomers to mostly white British Columbia decades before. Belief and structure helped Suman when she was perceived as “other.” She wants to impose the same solution on her daughter.

Panjabi maintains an almost rigid reserve despite her character’s exasperation when Reena does not cooperate while alive, and even when Suman learns of her daughter’s death. Yet Panjabi subtly conveys the mother’s abject grief and devastation, delivering the show’s single most powerful moment in a short reaction shot.

The internet was still young in 1997 and did not seem to factor in the Virk case. Still, social media inevitably springs to mind in 2024 with any story of teen bullying. If she had access to social media, Reena might have encountered bullying. But she also might have found community online and not been forced to throw her lot in with people who would betray her but were, as Reena explains in a particularly poignant moment, the only ones willing to hang out with her.

“Under the Bridge” premieres Wednesday, April 17, on Hulu.

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