HomeEntertainment'Under the Bridge' Grapples With the Harsh Reality of Teen Violence

‘Under the Bridge’ Grapples With the Harsh Reality of Teen Violence


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The innocence of childhood is shattered in Hulu’s new limited series ‘Under the Bridge.’ Based on the harrowing 2005 true crime book by Rebecca Godfrey, the show dramatizes the tragic 1997 murder of 14-year-old Reena Virk at the hands of her teenage peers in British Columbia. It’s a haunting exploration of the depths of adolescent cruelty that starts strong before losing its way in the back half.

The series opens with Reena (Vritika Gupta), an angst-ridden outsider who chafes against the strict rules of her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing under her mother Suman (Archie Panjabi). Desperate to fit in, Reena runs with a group of girls obsessed with an LA gang culture far removed from their Canadian suburb. This misguided attempt to belong culminates in Reena being beaten by classmates under a bridge in a horrific assault.

While she survives this initial attack, Reena’s murdered body is discovered in the woods days later. This senseless act of violence committed by mere children shakes the community to its core. Two women find themselves inextricably linked to the ensuing case – local cop Cam Bentley (Lily Gladstone) who immediately suspects Reena’s so-called “friends,” and writer Rebecca (Riley Keough) who inserts herself into the lives of the teens to investigate for a book.

In its fictionalized retelling, ‘Under the Bridge’ avoids most true crime clichés in its gripping opening episodes. The series resists the urge to sensationalize as it lays bare how quickly adolescent apathy and toxic group mentalities can breed violence. Through fragmented timelines, we see Reena’s doomed quest for acceptance among her cruel peers, all ignoring the clear warning signs.

“The show really makes you feel how alone and desperate for belonging some kids feel at that age,” says Gupta. “Reena just wanted to be accepted by this friend group, but they took such disturbing advantage of that need to be loved.”

While ‘Bridge’ puts Reena’s tragedy at the forefront early on, the series goes astray when it drifts too far into the perspectives of peripheral characters like Cam and Rebecca. Their arcs meant to frame the narrative end up distracting from the more vital story of how these teenagers came to commit such an unthinkable act.

“I liked exploring the different perspectives around this case, but I agree that there were simply too many subplots that took us away from the kids at the center,” admits creator Quinn Shepherd. “At a certain point, Reena’s story did get muddled by an overabundance of characters.”

Indeed, strong performances from Gupta and the trio of Chloe Guidry, Aiyana Goodfellow, and Izzy G. as Reena’s toxic friend group make you wish the series had stayed laser-focused on their dynamics. As the murder investigation inevitably closes in, their fascinating descents into guilt, denial and indifference prove far more compelling than some of the more eye-rolling tangents ‘Bridge’ gets bogged down in.

A prime example is the severely underdeveloped arc of Javon “Wanna” Walton’s homeless teen Warren, who becomes increasingly important in the back half without enough setup. Shepherd admits they may have bitten off more than they could coherently chew in just 8 episodes.

“Knowing everything we know now, Warren’s role probably could have been fleshed out more from the start,” says the creator. “There were absolutely some pacing and story balance issues in the latter episodes as we tried to incorporate all these different threads and characters.”

The desire to dive deep into perspectives both involved in the case and adjacent to it is admirable in theory. ‘Under the Bridge’ strives to serve as a comprehensive oral history of this shattering crime and the shockwaves it sent through the community. We get glimpses of that ambition paying off in insightful moments, such as how Cam’s Native American heritage impacts her view of the marginalized victim.

But more often, storylines involving Cam and Rebecca distract from the more visceral drama of seeing the actual perpetrators grapple with the consequences of their actions. The switch to their perspectives saps momentum from the series at its halfway point, burdening it with tangential melodrama that lacks the raw emotional intensity of Reena’s still-startling demise.

“I have no insider knowledge of what the writers were going for, but it did feel like the tone became uneven as it reached for an ending,” notes Guidry, who portrays the ringleader of Reena’s bullies. “Those later episodes seemed to lose their grasp on some of the specifics that made the first half so impactful about the group dynamics involved.”

It’s an unfortunate development, as the series clearly has something vital to say about the circumstances that enable extreme violence among children before getting distracted. The fictionalized but recognizable group mentalities of toxic friend circles are chillingly represented early on, only to get muddied amid the sloppy tendency to overcompensate with too many different arcs.

At its best, ‘Under the Bridge’ serves as a stark reminder of how easily negative peer influences can lead teenagers to transition from cruel bullying to homicidal violence if left unchecked. It’s a searing depiction of how quickly the innocence of youth can be permanently perverted, and the devastating impact wrought on the wider community circle around such a shocking crime.

“Teenagers in general sometimes feel like their identities are in flux, so they take cues for how to behave from those around them, even if those cues are extremely negative,” explains Goodfellow. “This show explores that concept in such an uncompromisingly raw and intense way by putting you in the mindset of Reena’s peers.”

If only the series had maintained that razor-sharp focus across the board instead of expanding its canvas too wide. There are certainly sparks of vitality and insight scattered throughout ‘Under the Bridge,’ particularly in the electric early episodes. But those glimpses of potential are inevitably obscured as the narrative bogs down in the struggle to find an impactful conclusion while balancing its fictionalized arcs.

Still, the conversation alone around teen violence and culpability Shepherd’s series sparks is admirable. At its most coherent, ‘Under the Bridge’ offers an unflinching look at the harsh realities of what can happen when apathy, peer pressure, and a toxic culture of meanness are allowed to fester among disaffected youth. No matter how muddled the series eventually becomes, that powerful depiction of innocence being senselessly lost will stay with you.


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