‘Under the Bridge’ Examines a True Crime From Every Viewpoint — Except the One That Matters

In the new Hulu limited series Under the Bridge, Riley Keough plays Rebecca Godfrey, a novelist who begins writing a non-fiction book about the murder of Reena Virk, a 14-year-old girl who lived in the same Canadian suburb where Rebecca grew up. In one episode, Rebecca’s father reads the first draft of the manuscript and wonders why she has chosen to focus so much on one of the accused killers, fellow teen Warren Glowatski, rather than Warren’s alleged victim.

Rebecca, who has had difficulty understanding her own actions and intentions ever since she came home to British Columbia, thinks on this for a moment. Then she suggests, “Because I’m challenging the reader to see that the worst thing he did isn’t who he is. People can do horrible things, and that doesn’t make them inherently evil. And I don’t know what the alternative is, other than me writing a sad story about a girl I didn’t know.”

There was a real Rebecca Godfrey, played here by Riley Keough. And a real Reena Virk (Vritika Gupta), a real Warren Glowatski (Javon Walton), etc. Godfrey’s 2005 book, also called Under the Bridge, won awards and acclaim for the level of access and insight she was able to offer regarding the kids who bullied and then savagely beat Reena to death by a gorge in 1997 — as well as for the picture it ultimately painted of Reena.

The eight-episode TV version, adapted by Quinn Shephard, attempts to cover the entire story. It frequently shifts its points of view, jumping from Reena, to cruel foster child Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry) and her well-to-do best friend Kelly (Izzy G.), Warren; Reena’s mother Suman (Archie Panjabi) and father Manjit (Ezra Farouke); local cop Cam Bentland (Lily Gladstone); and, finally, Rebecca herself. But in attempting to show the story through everyone’s eyes, Shephard and her collaborators ultimately struggle to find the same depth for which the actual Rebecca Godfrey was so celebrated.

The main issue, in fact, is the scripted version of Rebecca that Keough plays, as well as her relationship with Cam, whom she has known since childhood — and who, like, Rebecca, still grieves the death of Rebecca’s brother Gabe when they were all teenagers. Where Godfrey is a relatively minor figure in the book, since she preferred to write about the kids and their families, she is the main character of the show. And her interactions with Cam (a composite character, rather than a specific person from the real case) is given at least as much narrative weight as, if not more than, the bond she develops with Warren as she researches the book.

On the one hand, of course a TV show might want to elevate the roles played by two actors coming off of acclaimed roles — Keough’s Emmy-nominated work in Daisy Jones & The Six, Gladstone’s Oscar-nominated turn in Killers of the Flower Moon — over those played by less famous or celebrated young performers. (Though Javon Walton was a memorable part of the Euphoria ensemble as underage drug dealer Ashtray.) And when Keough and Gladstone are on screen, alone or together, you get it. The two of them, and Gladstone in particular, are so charismatic that they seem like the obvious place to center the story, even if there is no Cam Bentland, and even if the real Godfrey wasn’t particularly interested in making sure she was part of the narrative.

But dwelling on the storyteller rather than their subjects risks short-changing the story itself. This happened a couple of years ago with Netflix’s Inventing Anna, where Shonda Rhimes seemed less interested in con woman Anna Delvey than in the fictionalized reporter who helped make her famous. The end result is that Delvey herself remained opaque and unknowable, making it difficult to understand why either the reporter or Rhimes found her so fascinating.

The same unfortunately happens here. Despite having eight episodes to work with, Quinn Shephard and company only sometimes are able to get more than surface deep with Josephine, Kelly, Warren, and the other teens. Some of them know exactly why they attacked Reena, and some barely understand at all. But the show can’t quite elevate the former group above pure sociopathy, and never fully untangles the knot that the latter group has tangled itself up in. Reena (who appears often in flashbacks, even after the murder) fares a bit better, as do the members of her family — including Anoop Desai as her uncle, the only relative who kept trying to understand her as she began hanging out with Josephine’s crew of mean girls and listening to Biggie CDs(*). But none of them feel as three-dimensional as they should, under the circumstances.

(*) Some of the more focused material deals with how these white suburban kids modeled themselves on Black and brown rappers and criminals — Josephine nicknames her clique CMC, for “Crip Mafia Cartel” — even as they treated Reena and her Black friend Dusty (Aiyana Goodfellow) as second-class citizens.

But on the whole, Under the Bridge is oddly at its strongest when it strays furthest away from the actual events of the case. And the sheer amount of time spent with the less-developed characters can make the viewing experience feel more punishing than revelatory at times. A movie might not have done justice to the story, but this is too much, at least with this level of execution.

Rebecca Godfrey died in 2022, shortly before filming began on the series, but after she worked with Shephard and others (including showrunner Samir Mehta) to help develop it. So she surely knew this was the direction the series. This is far from the first adaptation to take significant departures from the source material, nor will it be the last. And in many cases, big changes are necessary in order for a story designed for one medium to work in another. In this case, though, the shift from the source material provides strong roles for a pair of actors on the rise, but it does a disservice to the story Godfrey once told.

The first two episodes of Under the Bridge are streaming now on Hulu, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all eight.

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