Not The Show We Need: Our Review of ‘Under The Bridge’

Posted in Disney +, What's Streaming? by - May 07, 2024
Not The Show We Need: Our Review of ‘Under The Bridge’

It’s November of 1997 on Vancouver Island. If you’re a Canadian of a certain age, you’ll remember that’s around the time Reena Virk disappearance became national news. A voice-over from author Rebecca Godfrey (Riley Keough) introduces us to the story of Reena Virk’s murder with these words: “On its face, this story is the opposite of a fairytale. But that’s only until you consider what fairytales are really about.” To the narrator, fairytales are “Stories of horror,” tales of “girls punished for selfishness or no reason at all.”

As the series opens, New York-based It Girl writer Rebecca has returned home to Victoria, where she will soon become obsessed with the murder of teenage Reena Virk, a 14 year-old girl who went to a party with people she thought were friends and never came home. While the voice-over’s commentary on the true nature of fairytales is salient, its thesis about the murder of Reena Virk is troubling. According to Rebecca, this case taught us that young girls are not the people we need to protect so much as the villains we must be “protected from.” And thus the tragic and complicated murder of Reena Virk becomes just another TV show scapegoating teen girls, trying to convince us they’re actually society’s worst demographic. Because we hadn’t gotten enough of that from Sharp Objects and Yellow Jackets already…

Adapted from Rebecca Godfrey’s 2005 book of the same title and airing on Disney+, Under The Bridge is a big splashy True Crime series. It’s the sort of Big Budget American project that’s rarely made about Canadian murders – especially with stars like Lily Gladstone in the mix. But glossy as it looks, I wouldn’t call this series good or particularly illuminating. Rather, it is just one of many dramatizations about real-life murders that struggle to make a point. It is underwhelming True Crime with high production values.

A girl from a South Asian and Jehova’s Witness background, Reena Virk, portrayed here by Vritika Gupta, grew up in Victoria with her upper-middle-class family. Like many teens, her relationship with her parents was tempestuous. As the show demonstrates, Reena felt self-conscious about her parents’ Indian cooking and embarrassed by their Jehova’s Witness traditions. And for her mother, portrayed by Archie Panjabi, provides a realistic portrayal of an exasperated parent who loves her daughter but also finds her teenage antics frustrating.

As Under The Bridge presents her, Reena liked rap, worried about her weight (common traits for girls in the 90s), and was eager to fit in with a group of kids who worshipped The Mafia. In the end, it was some of those kids she thought of as friends who killed her. To add horrific racism to an already heinous act, her assailants burnt a Bindi Dot into Reena’s forehead. Reena’s murder soon became a national tragedy, but is it proof that teen girls are inherently bad? Does it demonstrate that they are all worse than the rest of us? While that is the show’s opening salvo, it struggles to prove its point.

Those who grew up with this case in the news know both how upsetting and how complicated it was.  Of the young women who attacked Reena, some were living in foster care, having been neglected and abandoned by their own families. And yet, Under The Bridge portrays those young women – living in a group foster home with no parents – with less sympathy than is typically reserved for Ted Bundy (a man who killed and raped young girls, by the way). This leads one to believe that the narrative that frames Under The Bridge – one of teen girls’ inherent viciousness – simply serve to excuse the rest of society for creating the conditions that breed this sort of atrocity.

The young people involved with Reena’s murder committed a series of unspeakable acts; however, we should also acknowledge that they did not invent Canadian racism or abuse, but were molded by the racism and abuse that already surrounded them. Reena’s family, as the show even admits, had experienced racist micro-aggressions from adults since their arrival in Victoria in 1950. And of course, anyone who is at all educated on The Foster Care System knows the complex lives of the children who inside it. Kids in care have often survived violence, neglect, an incarcerated parent, or parents living with substance abuse issues. There is never an excuse for murder, but seriously abused children who do not receive proper intervention are more likely to abuse others, a fact that Under The Bridge spends far less time on than it should. Instead, the show prefers to offer us cartoonish images of snarling wayward teens.

It isn’t just Under The Bridge‘s portrayal of teen girls that falls flat. Gladstone, an undeniably brilliant performer, is given little to do but play her character, Cam, as a two-dimensional “cop with a heart.” Cam, while initially dismissive of the Virks, becomes hellbent on solving Reena’s murder – even if her racist colleagues don’t much care. As noble as Cam’s mission is, there’s not much that feels fresh or fleshed out about the way her character is written. And then there’s Riley Keough – usually a dynamic performer – her performance is so low energy that she might as well be sleep walking. When Keough and Gladstone wind up in scenes together, rather than lighting up the screen with their combined star wattage, you feel like taking a nap.

Ultimately, Reena Virk and her family deserved a better adaptation or her story, or none at all. If there is a message to be found in Reena’s heartbreaking murder, it is this: society, as a whole, failed her. Her murderers learned racism and violence on Canadian soil. If they are monsters, they are monsters of our own making, not proof that teen girls are the real villains. We do not need another series that tells us girl children are the actual problem. The problem has always been a White Supremacist Patriarchy that immerses kids in racism and social inequalities…

This post was written by
Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Refinery29, Elle Canada, Flare, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-founder of The ProfessionElle Society. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about parenting, politics, and The Bachelor.
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