I feel as though there are two types of coming-of-age films. There are the ones which overall have a cheerful tone, even if there are moments of conflict. This entails every John Hughes movie starring Molly Ringwald, SuperBad, Clueless, Now & Then, etc. Then you have the coming-of-age movies that are more cautionary tales than anything else; such as (almost every Larry Clark film but especially) Kids, Thirteen, Fat Girl, Fish Tank, Fire Walk With Me, The Rules of Attraction, ad infinitum.

Isao Yukisada’s (Go, Parade, Sunflower) latest film, RIVER’S EDGE fits more into the latter category, which I must admit I usually enjoy more anyway, because they’re much truer to reality. I’m not presuming to know the circumstances of every person who might read this, but I think most people can relate to what a nightmare being a teenager can seem to be, especially if you’re a woman/femme-presenting person. RIVER’S EDGE shows us the unique, but equally difficult and depressing circumstances of six teenagers in a suburb of 1994 Tokyo.

Most of the action centers around Haruna Wakasuka (Fumi Nikaido; Why Don’t You Play in Hell, My Man) a seemingly detached, chain-smoking child of a single mom with a propensity for mom jeans. She has a bullying, scumbag boyfriend, Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi; Doctor X, One Week Friends). Through his bullying, we meet Ichiro Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa; Kamen Rider Fourze, Bleach), an outcast who is often found tied up in lockers because all the popular boys hate him. Haruna befriends him at the beginning of the film after Kannonzaki has badly beaten him.

We also have the ultra seductive Rumi Koyama ( Shiori Doi; Miroku, Futari no sekai), the Laura Palmer/Audrey Horne of the film, a femme fatale Lolita with a 38-year-old boyfriend. There is also Kozue Yoshikawa (Sumire; The Shack), a famous teen model/actress who is secretly struggling with bulimia. Lastly, there is Kanna Tajima (Aoi Morikowa; Ninja the Monster, Love and Lies), Yamada’s long-suffering girlfriend.

Haruna becomes fast friends with Ichiro Yamada despite the fact that her boyfriend is constantly beating him up. She seems to enjoy spending more time with Yamada right off the bat, and the feeling is mutual. It doesn’t take long for Haruna to find out that Ichiro is gay and also that he has found a corpse lying on the river’s edge amongst the Canadian goldenrod.

Kozue Yoshikawa is the only other person who knows both of these facts. The three become a secret circle of friends, which causes Kannonzaki to look elsewhere for love. He has a brief, tumultuous affair with Rumi that causes trouble for both and brings the rest of the gang into the fray. Insufferably nice Kanna Tajima starts to suspect that things are not on the up and up with her boyfriend, and all hell starts to break loose.

There’s much more to this film than this, but I wouldn’t want to spoil any more than I already have. RIVER’S EDGE is an intelligent, heartbreaking view of the real lives of teenagers. Based on a manga written by Kyoko Okazaki, screenwriter Misaki Setoyama shows us the gritty underbelly of a culture that prides itself on politeness and discretion.

Kenji Maki builds a world with his cinematography that is dark and mysterious, while also telling a story about pollution’s effects on the environment at the outset of a worldwide call to action to fix these problems. I haven’t read the manga (shame on me), but I want to now so I can see how faithful Isao Yukisada’s adaptation of the source material really is. It works brilliantly as a stand-alone film without having any prior knowledge of the manga, however.

I wouldn’t watch this if you thought Kids or Twin Peaks were too dark and gritty, because this film almost surpasses both in some moments of violence and depression. I embrace the film for these reasons. However, some may not. Some people don’t like to be faced with the grim facts that encompass most of our lives. Most people want a happy ending. This film doesn’t have the happiest ending, beginning, or middle, but it treats it’s characters with respect and honestly tells compelling stories about growing up.  For that, I definitely appreciate it and would watch it again. I look forward to watching more films from Yukisada in the future.

RIVER’S EDGE has its Canadian premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on Sunday, July 29th. It plays again at the festival on the 31st. It had it’s US debut on July 3rd as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. As of yet, there is no theatrical release, but once there is in your corner of the world, please go check it out.

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