Note: Almost as interesting as the film itself is the troubled back story of its creation. David James Duncan's beloved 1983 novel has long been considered a tricky proposition to adapt to film due to the story's internal monologue and metaphorical quest for self-knowledge and enlightenment. The author, himself, fought a legal battle against this interpretation with claims of copyright infringement among other allegations with the case settled in 2008. To date, Duncan claims not to have seen the movie at the advice of friends and family and is certainly no supporter of it. It's an interesting story and, if you have an interest, I'd recommend looking it up.
For the purposes of this review, I do not compare the movie with the book. Each is its own entity and it would be hard to match the complexities of the novel's narrative device in film format. But lacking the depth of the book, the movie ends up being a pleasant enough coming-of-age story. If you loved the book, you will react in one of two ways. You might hate that the movie misses or only superficially deals with the larger philosophical issues. Or you might love the book so much that you forgive the movie's flaws because you relate so specifically to the subject matter.
I have no doubt that certain viewers will be enchanted by the offbeat coming-of-age story "The River Why." Attempting to be earnest and heartfelt, however, the film is a bit too quirky for its own good with stylized and unrealistic dialogue. In most film examples, the quirky quotient is used to make hip and self-congratulatory comedies about urban youths--here it is employed to a decidedly more homespun, but no more authentic, tale. Using fishing as a metaphor for life, "The River Why" benefits tremendously with a likable lead performance by Zach Gilford (Friday Night Lights). However, he doesn't fully overcome the screenplay (complete with ponderous narration) that tries too hard to be eccentric AND fraught with deep meaning and insight. It's an uneasy alliance--one that didn't work for me--but should be pleasant enough for most. If you like whimsical philosophical musings in place of real character insight, this rather lightweight narrative should suffice.
Gilford plays the eldest son of an eccentric fishing family. Dad is a fly fisher (and famous author), mom uses traditional bait--isn't that a wacky mix? Here's an example of the painfully contrived characterizations. His little brother, who is never more than an artificial construct, hates the water. So he wears galoshes and a raincoat all year round and only drinks fruit juice. Quirky stuff, huh? For a rather thin reason, Gilford leaves the family and moves into the woods to be a fishing hermit. However, he learns about life from a pipe smoking intellectual (Dallas Roberts), a beautiful girl (Amber Heard, with no real story of her own), and a rural family of plucky kids. Despite the script that perceives that it is filled with import, it is all rather superficial and expected material. That doesn't mean I hated the movie, it's watchable enough. It just lacks a certain realness to make it memorable in the overcrowded coming-of-age genre.
Part of my reservation about the movie comes from a lack of genuine character development. The film has a terrific cast. William Hurt and Kathleen Quinlan, as the parents, don't have much to do and aren't explored with any depth. Roberts and Heard exist only to teach Gilford meaningful lessons, they have nothing to do outside of his character. William Devane shows up briefly for comic relief. It's all nice. Gilford is such an appealing presence, however, I stuck with the movie. The scenery looks terrific and everything is very pretty. At the end of the day, though, I didn't feel much genuine emotion in this story that was designed to tug at my heartstrings. And yet, as I said, I suspect many people will support this slight and superficial film. KGHarris, 8/11.