James is serving a sentence in juvenile detention for crime he doesn't remember: the killing of a ten-year-old boy. When he's released he embarks on a dangerous quest for answers and search for the missing body in the hope it will bring some closure for the grieving mother.

3.5
‘Downriver’ is excellent at asking questions and portraying the ripple effects of juvenile trauma.

An anguished mother confronts her son’s killer on the eve of his release from juvenile detention. “Where is he? Did you weigh him down? It’s killing me!” she pleads. Yet the guilt-ridden young man, James (Reef Ireland), has no answers. He can’t remember what happened to the 10-year-old boy all those years ago.

James suffers from epilepsy. He had a fit at the time of the alleged murder and his memories are murky. But now, he’s determined to find the body, pay some kind of penance and find redemption. Leaving prison, after saying goodbye to his lover and roommate, James returns to the picturesque riverside caravan park where the gruesome deed occurred.

A haunting mystery-drama, Downriver gradually layers characters and details until we have a better picture – though never complete – of what happened and the consequences of an unresolved crime.

‘What punishment should be attached to an adult who committed a crime during their childhood?’

There’s the bitter and ashamed mother, Paige (Kerry Fox) who loves James despite what he’s done, but tries to deny his existence to her new lover (Robert Taylor, who is excellent as the decent truck-driving bloke). There’s the nasty childhood friend, Anthony (Tom Green), whose own messed up family may have more to do with the crime than anyone knows. And then there’s the handsome new love interest, Damien (Charles Grounds), whose languid limbs and sly smile attract both James and Anthony into a violent love triangle. All the while, the dangerous but beautiful river glides past, reflecting clouds and gum trees and perhaps hiding bodies in its murky depths. The film was shot in Victoria around the Yarra River and the Warrandyte area, skillfully captured by DOP László Baranyai (Noise).

Writer-director Grant Scicluna’s 15-minute short film The Wilding won the 2012 Iris Prize – a prestigious international Gay and Lesbian short film award – with tale of a teenager unwilling to leave juvenile detention because he wants to protect his lover inside. Now with this debut feature, Scicluna returns with an almost connected story. Both films feature Reef Ireland in the lead role and he’s wonderful at portraying an injured sensitivity and strength. Here, Ireland engages our sympathy whether he’s guilty or not – and even if he did commit the crime, what punishment should be attached to an adult who committed a crime during their childhood? Downriver is excellent at asking these questions and portraying the ripple effects of juvenile trauma.

The term ‘Gay Noir’ has been bandied around in discussions about this film, and admittedly there’s something refreshing in the fact that every young male character in the story is gay, and this is not overtly remarked upon within the film. And yet because the story is so entwined with themes of violence and criminality – and includes one extended male-on-male rape scene – a mainstream audience may come away with the impression that gayness and emotional damage are inextricably entwined. A queer audience will of course read it in an entirely different and more nuanced way.

There are moments when Downriver is too mysterious for its own good – the gaps in the viewer’s understanding feel more like the result of undeveloped storytelling and abrupt editing than deliberate and controlled withholding of information. Yet strong production values (especially considering the low budget of this partially crowd-funded project) together with superb performances and an intriguing story make this film well worth a look. Scicluna is a talent to follow.

Downriver screened at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival.