Her mother (Becki Hayes‘ Lois) has lived in this town her whole life and River Allen (Mary Cameron Rogers) knows she’d willing suffer the same fate unless she forces herself to leave right now. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad fate—regrets or not, Lois seems to enjoy the life she’s carved out over the years as a single mother amongst friends that care about her—but how would River ever know if something better was out there if she simply accepted it without at least trying? So she tells her best friend Amanda (Alexandra Rose) that’s she heading to California post-graduation and breaks the news to her boyfriend (Rob Marshall‘s Jamie, Amanda’s brother) that she’ll be taking that journey alone. Move forward and don’t ever look back.
Writer/director Emily Skye‘s River ultimately setting the stage for its titular character’s return one year later courtesy of Lois’ tragic death creates an expectation for closure. Either coming home to pack up the house, rekindle her friendships, and discovering Jamie’s about to be married will prove to River that she made the right choice. Or the nostalgic pull of her past will instead remind her what she’s missed. It’s the kind of crossroads everyone confronts at some point in their lives because not everyone is cut out for leaving that which they know best behind to start something brand new. Perhaps saying goodbye to her mother will be the final door River needs to close before leaving forever. Or maybe she’ll find she can’t say goodbye at all.
It’s an emotional reckoning dripping with trauma that both Amanda and her old boss (Courtney Gains‘ Michael—or Dr. Glenn, as the kids weirdly call him when he’s wearing his therapist hat as though he’s two different people) are attempting to guide her through, but she’s never been one to be vulnerable enough to embrace that sort of help easily. Add the complex feelings of not knowing whether to engage Jamie on the cusp of his nuptials with another woman and River is very much lost in her own head with nowhere to turn but the memories of her mother telling her to “stay strong.” So things only become more confusing once a day hike sees her waking in bed with no recollection of how she got back.
This strange event is central to the plot and yet occurs halfway through. While not inherently a bad thing, its sudden appearance after forty minutes of spending time with these characters in a grounded psychological drama can’t stop from becoming a jarring left turn that doesn’t quite fit. We go with it, though, because River has been acting odd. Time seems to have been getting lost with days overlapping to the point where even Amanda is questioning her friend’s state of mind. Learning that this latest lapse was weeks-long—Michael and Jamie have been putting up flyers all over town, desperate for answers about her disappearance—alludes to something more nefarious than grief, but we hope its revelation won’t be too far-fetched. We hope that grief remains paramount.
If you look at the poster or read anything about Skye’s intentions with infusing this personal story about finding one’s own path with science fiction tropes, you know the opposite is true. When River starts Googling the relationship between owls (she keeps hearing them) and aliens, the pieces start to fall into place. And the further we move away from how she’s coping with her mother’s death and the changes that have occurred in her absence, the reasons we’re here are almost forgotten entirely. Conversations meant to be thought of as inspirational are retrofitted into secretively prophetic messages. The aberrations we’ve experienced are revealed to be external rather than internal. And a seemingly unrelated mystery replaces the nuanced character study that got us invested in the first place.
I say “seemingly” because the mystery isn’t unrelated once you step back and look at the bigger picture. There’s a way to let this new supernatural thriller co-exist with River’s emotional turmoil from start to finish as parallel interpretations of the same journey. Skye’s decision to segment them into two halves unfortunately prevents that marriage and instead has us wondering if we’ve been led into a completely different movie as ambitions and motivations are turned on their head with zero regard towards where they originated. And you can’t just gloss over that reality by cryptically talking about a “transformation.” You can’t have us invest in a human story only to figuratively (and in some cases literally) tell the characters to unceremoniously ignore it for something else.
What’s even more confusing for me is reading Skye’s director’s statement and its belief that River is “about a woman who chooses her destiny, even if that means going into the unknown.” Maybe I missed something, but little about this character’s path forward upon returning home from California is “her choosing.” Not only is she unaware of what’s going on, but she also actively rejects what’s being done. One character is leading her to this destination through duplicitous means that she fights against while she accepts the help from another character seeking to protect her from that endgame. Everything that happens to River after her disappearance is hijacked until the finale blindsides her with more questions than answers precisely because it’s not her decision. It’s driven by destiny.
Last time I checked: that’s the exact opposite of free will. Suddenly even her actions before leaving for California come into question because the dialogue River had with her mother is repurposed as manipulation rather than inspiration. Lois’ death—the cause for River’s return—is even colored as an outside force pulling this young woman’s strings to be where it needs her to be to become what it wants her to become. All the good work from the first act is therefore undone. All the memories and relationships that have made River who she is are rendered artificial. And we learn nothing in the process besides the reality that she’s had no choice about any of it. Her grief isn’t therefore reconciled. It’s exploited. The whiplash is untenable.
 Mary Cameron Rogers
 Rob Marshall – Alexandra Rose – Mary Cameron Rogers
 Courtney Gains