'River Wild' Audience Gets Swept Up by Forces of Nature

Lynn Smith is a staff writer for the Times' Life & Style section.

In "The River Wild," a troubled Boston couple and their son take a river-rafting trip in Montana, only to be hijacked by a pair of armed robbers who force the mom (Meryl Streep), an experienced river guide, to navigate their raft through forbidden waters. (Rated PG-13)

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No doubt Meryl Streep was totally buff, independent, smart and caring, a role model for girls of the '90s. But the real star of this movie, according to kids, was the river.

Way beyond wild, this river was life-threatening--turbulent, glacial, precipitous. If the hidden rocks and eddies didn't get you, the temperature would. Naturally, the kids were ready to pack their bags for Montana.

"I like roller-coasters. It looks like something I'd like to do," said Joanna Arhon, 15.

As I watched with my daughter Amanda, 13, I couldn't help but remember our own rafting trip on Oregon's Rogue River, which was fine until her raft became hooked on a rock in a waterfall for a heart-stopping 10 minutes, an incident that made the trip . . . for her. In the movie, she shushed me as I inadvertently gasped in unison with the rest of the audience, imagining the worst was about to happen but grateful that at least we weren't watching it in IMAX.

When it was all over, I had bitten off two nails. She was inspired to sign up for another raft trip.

And she wasn't alone.

Rafting veterans Julia Montgomery, 16, and Dahlia Alony, 15, said they were inspired to try a more challenging fork of the American River. Their friend Joyce Schneiderman, 17, said she now wanted to give rafting a try, too.

Julia said she was impressed with the cinematography that conveyed the power of the sheer drops and huge waves the rafters confronted. The girls admitted they clung to one another throughout the thriller.

"It was a really good movie, but there were parts that were really scary," Julia said. "So it's not like a movie I would bring little kids to. It's one of those where you sit through like this--shaking."

The girls said they appreciated seeing a female action hero.

"Omigosh, it was so rad. I wish I was her," Dahlia said.

Julia explained: "In most action movies, like hero movies, the woman always just stands there in back and watches the guy. It was a real good change to see the woman doing most of the action."

Some thought Streep's character's husband, a workaholic architect who hustled along from the sidelines as Streep controlled the raft through the Class 5 rapids, was demoted to a "Lassie sort of a man." But others thought the movie portrayed them as equal, just different types of heroes.

"Each played a major role in saving their lives," Dahlia said. "It was really good."

Experienced rafters, however, were skeptical over the scenes in which the robbers gain enough expertise in a five-minute lesson to help navigate the raft through rapids considered too dangerous for the public.

"That couldn't happen with just one person steering the raft," said Michael Leonard, 11. Some viewers were also surprised at the level of violence, which included four murders, two on-screen, two off.

"They could have done without the killing part," Joanna said.

When the good guys became violent, Julia said, it was clearly justified by self-defense. Plus, she said, the violence was less bloody than in other movies.

"In most movies where there's death and blood and stuff, you get totally turned off. . . . The death wasn't that disgusting," she said. "People got killed, but it wasn't like they were dripping blood everywhere."

The river just washed all the mess away.

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