‘Under the Bridge,’ a True Crime Drama With Queer Leads, Wants More for Its Girls and the Genre

Girls were in trouble, in the 90s. There is plenty of literature documenting the concerns of the era — Reviving Ophelia, Queen Bees and Wannabees, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gapand I read them all. The girls were screaming at their parents on daytime talk shows, starving themselves and cutting themselves and piercing their noses and slouching their jeans and shoplifting and bullying and having sex and all of this was an effort to impress boys and to impress each other and to destroy their parents and maybe all of society. Girls were falling behind in school, girls were bullies, girls were superficial, girls hated themselves. In Under the Bridge, a limited series that debuted this week on Hulu, these girls of the ’90s do all of those things but in this story not all of them grow up or grow out of it, not all of them have the chance to grow up and watch girls of future decades find their own brand of trouble, because the trouble they get into will leave one of them dead.

Based on Rebecca Godfrey’s non-fiction book by the same name, Under the Bridge tells the story of Reena Virk, a Canadian-Indian 14-year-old brutally beaten and killed by a group of teenagers she thought were her friends in 1997 Saanich, British Columbia. (Godfrey spent several years adapting the novel into a series with producer Quinn Shepherd, but passed away in 2022.) At the time, this story was sensationalized as emblematic of larger, sinister forces, of some kind of referendum on how deeply the girls of the 90s were in trouble, and who was at fault — the media, hip-hop, divorce rates. Godfrey’s book, and the series, avoid the urge to slot this event into an easy narrative template, and in turn, create something incredibly rare: a true crime drama less concerned with scandal or mystery than it is with empathy and curiosity. Instead, it tells a haunting story about cruelty and desire and the aching compromises and mistakes we make trying to fit in to a place that won’t make space for us. Executive Producer credits are shared by Samir Mehta (Tell Me Lies) and Liz Tigelaar (Little Fires Everywhere), and like Little Fires Everywhere, Under the Bridge is also explicitly queer in a way that its source material was not.

Godfrey, who is only present in her own book as much as it is necessary, becomes a full, somewhat different character in the series, played by Riley Keough. This Rebecca Godfrey is a young queer writer living in New York City who returns to her lakeside family home to work on a book about “the misunderstood girls of Victoria.” She’s not been home much since leaving the island, where the memory of her brother’s death by drowning and her own unspecified adolescent demons still lurk. She begins her research at Seven Oaks Home for Girls, where she first meets Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry), a mean teenager enamored by her own cruel prettiness who idolizes John Gotti. On the day that Rebecca meets Josephine and her friend Dusty (queer actor Aiyana Goodfellow), Reena Virk (Vritika Gupta) has been missing for two days.

Reena’s father, Manjit (Ezra Faroque Khan) and her uncle, Raj (Anoop Desai) report Reena’s disappearance to the police, but are dismissed by weary, bored cops who remind Manjit and Raj that teenagers run away all the time and tend to turn up. These cops are the contemptable Scott (Daniel Diemer) and his uneasy sister, Cam Betland (Lily Gladstone), a soft butch who’s entire life seems like one big compromise. When Manjit speaks to Raj in Punjabi and Cam asks them to speak English, Raj points at Scott — “I get it from him,” he then turns to Cam, “but I wouldn’t expect it from you.” Perhaps it is this that inspires her to follow them out, ask more questions, attach herself to the case, and thus slot her character into the Token Good Cop trope.

When Rebecca and Cam end up in the same room for the first time seemingly since Rebecca left the island, it’s immediately clear that the two share an unspecified but fraught and romantic past. Cam, who is Indigenous, spent time as a teenager in Seven Oaks, and was adopted by a white family. Her father, Roy (Matt Craven), is the chief of police, and her career choice seems like her own bid for acceptance, to cross the chasm from “invited guest” into someone who truly belongs, from being a problem to solving them. But now that she’s at the desk, she has to contend with an institution that has never been correct about who and what constitutes a problem. Roy seems to like her in this spot, desperate for his approval.

“So you’re a cop now,” Rebecca says when Cam agrees to come over, leaning against the wall of her room with a glass of red wine. “That’s kind of… terrible.”

Cam snorts. “Yeah, I’ll let my entire family know you said so.”

Seemingly Cam is certain her best way out of Victoria is an invitation to the Vancouver Major Crimes department, for which Roy refuses to write her recommendation. While unarticulated, it feels obvious enough that her desire to flee for Vancouver is in part because, as a queer Indigenous person, she feels as alone on the island as Reena Virk does. Gladstone told Rotten Tomatoes that she’d read a lot of character breakdowns of Indigenous cops with skepticism, but chose to take this one on, seeing it as “an opportunity to indict law enforcement and to indict that power dynamic” of what happens when “a woman who largely is denied having power [is put] in such a role.”

“The island is safe, clean,” Cam’s father tells her. “Why would anybody want to leave?”

Of course it is safe for him. But for others in the story, “safety” is more elusive, and so is power.

The Virks want to keep Reena safe, but Reena’s got intense tunnel vision, desperate for popularity and acceptance. At school, she’s bullied for her weight and her race and the religious traditions that prevent her parents from offering her the stuff of conformity (like shaving her legs) she longs for. Once Reena is under Josephine’s spell, the Virks don’t stand a chance. Josephine wants her own girl gang, wants to be perceived as tough and violent, talks about Biggie Smalls’ murder like they were personal friends, has a Svengali-like power over her pals and in some scenes moves through rooms and challenges adults like some thin-eyebrowed lip-penciled teenage hellmouth version of Scar from The Lion King. 

Josephine’s parents are absent and she lives at Seven Oaks, as does Dusty, a shy Black teenager who hides herself behind Josephine and also in oversized jackets and enormous pants. Queer actor Aiyana Goodfellow’s performance as Dusty is heartbreaking, her panic and despair as palpable as the easy ways her life could’ve gone differently. Her onscreen presence is arresting. Josephine’s best friend, Kelly Ellard, has a wealthy family who ostensibly care about her, but Kelly, portrayed as a blank-faced sociopath, wants what Reena does — a grittier, edgier life — although for entirely different reasons.

While the Virks attempt to remind Reena that she, in fact, is privileged to have a home and parents who love her, it’s hopeless. Raj is fun and understanding and a secret ally to Reena. Her father Manjit is so kind and well-meaning and careful and patient that it is physically painful to witness him experiencing any pain of his own. (The real Manjit, who consented to the production of this series, wrote a book about his life and Reena’s death, which was also used as a source material for this script.) Archie Panjabi plays Suman Virk, Reena’s mother, raised by a family who moved to Victoria from India and were immediately won over by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Suman’s faith in God is stronger than her desire to fit in perfectly anywhere, but Reena would do anything to belong. It is a classic intergenerational clash, as mundane in retrospect as it feels, to Reena, insurmountable in the present.

Under the Bridge nails it all, all the catastrophe and absurdity of growing up in that era— the etherial music, the adults wearing baby-doll tees, the white kids aping hip hop style and calling themselves “Crips” with zero understanding of or experience with the context that birthed the actual Crips. It all feels so familiar. How wrongly the peers without loving families and homes were envied because they had minimal supervision and the freedom to stay out late, host parties, smoke pot. How where you were from mattered less than where you wanted to go, where you were truly from in your heart, where you were meant to be. Every torn-up person in this story wants to be somewhere else.

The timing and process of the actual investigation surrounding Virk’s disappearance is fictionalized in part to make room for Cam’s character and Rebecca being present in Victoria at the time of the murder, rather than returning specifically to write about it. In the series, Rebecca is investigating in her own wiley way, in ways that are often objectively inappropriate, and the way she pulls the truth out of easily enchanted children is sadly less effective with Cam, who’s emotional walls are made of more solid stuff.

Whatever happened between Cam and Rebecca in the past, their chemistry and the acres of hurt and want between them is visceral whenever they share the screen. While I’m trying to avoid spoilers past the first two episodes here, I can assure you that if you are gay and you think you are picking up on something, you are correct, it’s there. In her white t-shirt and a ponytail, drinking a beer, sad and weary and tentatively open to Rebecca’s inquisition, Cam is so intense and hot. Rebecca’s emotional turmoil is easily deciphered, but Cam’s layers are less apparent, and Gladstone’s performance is captivating.

Ultimately, Under the Bridge isn’t a story of “how we caught the killers” or a black-and-white tale of good guys tracking down the bad, one in which “justice” will be achieved if the correct people are identified and adequately punished. While it doesn’t elude tired tropes altogether, it is interested in uncomfortable truths, unbearable compromises, the desperation for safety and the quest for the deceptively protective illusion of power that pushes us apart when compassion, as uncool as it is, is right there for the taking.

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Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3202 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. Riese, darling
    An impressive series and a must watch and must read on my list. I have searched it all over and have found it.
    No, it’s not available in the Netherlands.
    Big thank you for the tip and the info!
    Feromoon

  2. Thanks for covering this show with such a thoughtful perspective, Riese. I usually avoid true-crime narratives or cop shows for all the reasons you, Drew, and others here have articulated, but your write-up convinced me to give it a try and I’m so glad I did.

    While certain beats feel a bit stagey or pat (like, I’m not usually an apologist for the straight white male cop but it would have been more interesting and felt more real to me if Cam’s brother was a decent person but who was also indicted in the complicity of being a cop and his role in the community), some of the actors are so strong they anchor the show. Gladstone is so good. I too love Goodfellow, and really most of the teen actors are convincing and commit to the complexity of their characters. Kelly is really the only exception… I feel like we don’t yet have any sense of her interiority or desires, and she (along with Cam’s brother) feel like the most cartoonish of the ensemble. I look forward to reading more and thank you for turning me onto this show!

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