‘Same River Twice’: drifting toward adulthood | AspenTimes.com

‘Same River Twice’: drifting toward adulthood

Stewart Oksenhorn
"The Same River Twice" is a then-and-now documentary about a group of 20-something friends who made a 35-day trip through the Grand Canyon in 1978. Robb Moss photo.

Coming-of-age stories are so prevalent in the cinema that they have practically become a genre unto themselves. Whether it’s the recent French film “Monsieur Ibrahim,” the classic American comedy “Say Anything,” or the sublime, fablelike “October Sky,” there’s the expanding and defining of a worldview, the stumbling steps toward adulthood, the sexual awakening (usually accompanied by deflowering).

But not all growing up occurs between the first orgasm and first legal drink. As people live longer and delay the big life changes that mark an adult existence, coming of age happens in the 20s, even into the 30s. In Aspen we often refer to our town as a campus, so filled is it with people whose main interests are drinking and skiing, hiking and partying – and never mind that the majority of them are well past their college years.

I myself, now 40, put off marriage, child and house until my mid-30s, as I spent the ages from 28 to 33, in the immortal words of Benjamin Braddock, “drifting” – playing in a rock band, moving from one local abode to another with alarming frequency, taking road trips, getting high and sometimes pondering what I might do if and when I grew up. Occasionally it would occur to me that my father already was the parent of a teenager at the same age I had my first child. (I also had some experience with the dangers of trying to come of age too quickly, which resulted in an abbreviated career as an attorney.)

The characters in Robb Moss’ documentary “The Same River Twice” have a similarly laid-back approach to growing up as I eventually did. A group of hairy, hippie river guides, their mid-20s existence consists of floating down the Colorado River, and not much else. The only thing less present in their lives than stress is clothing: As one character reflects, “We never had to find a reason to take off our clothes; we had to find a reason to put them on.” In the fall of 1978, with the float season wound down, 17 river rats had their own, mostly idyllic, 35-day drift through the Grand Canyon.

One of the participants, Robb Moss, filmed the trip for his movie, “Riverdogs.” Some 20 years later, Moss revisited five of his mates from that glorious time. Interspersing footage from now and then, “The Same River Twice” is a coming-of-age film that examines the distance between the carefree youths and the adults they have become. Instead of looking at the teenage years, Moss examines the growth and changes from 25 to 48.

Time has been both kind and cruel. Barry is a happy, mature director of a psychiatric hospital and father of three. He takes in stride his failed re-election bid for mayor of small Placerville, Calif. But his body is failing him. He is being treated for testicular cancer, and is so freaked out about his fate that he doesn’t tell his children or his mother about his disease.

Danny has aged remarkably well. An admirably fit 48, she has two kids, has recently started an aerobics studio – and laughs comfortably at the idea of her 20-something self. Jeff and Cathy, a couple in 1978, are now divorced and living across the street from one another, the better to care for their two children.

Jim is the film’s cosmic joke. The spiritual center of the 1978 trip, he is still a river guide and always has been (except for a six-month stretch where he tried to be a dentist). He lives in – or more exactly, around – a trailer in the backwoods of northern California. His goal is to build the smallest house that will possibly fit him and his belongings. Even this modest goal is elusive; by film’s end, a year or so after we are introduced to his adult self, he is just pouring a slab for the foundation.

These characters, and the juxtapositions between their younger and present-day versions, are compelling enough to make “The Same River Twice” a rewarding film. Moss’ best asset seems to be knowing how much is enough: The film is a swift 78 minutes and any more would likely drag. Also to his credit Moss – now a nonfiction filmmaker and film professor at Harvard – doesn’t force any conclusions. These people are what they are and were what they were, and the film opens up the space between past and present, allowing viewers to see the issues that have developed.

For any young adults considering dropping out of life for a spell, “The Same River Twice” should be reassuring, maybe even inspiring. Spending a good portion of their 20s living as relaxed a life as possible hasn’t wreaked any discernible damage. In certain ways they seem to have benefited. All five main characters, now approaching 50, have retained a semblance of youthfulness while aging gracefully. All embrace the free-spirited versions of themselves, but none – well, maybe Jim, but in a refreshing, innocent way – hangs on to that image. Maybe that’s because their early adulthoods were sufficiently enjoyable and nourishing.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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