Separating the Fact from the Fictionalized in Hulu’s Under the Bridge

“Hell is a teenage girl,” or so goes the phrase made infamous by the 2009 film Jennifer’s Body, now a cult classic for its sly depiction of feminine rage. But a young girl’s rage can be as terrible as it is cathartic, as easily co-opted as misunderstood. Both are sentiments untangled in the new Hulu series Under the Bridge, adapted from Rebecca Godfrey’s celebrated 2005 true-crime book of the same name.

The book and series track the 1997 death of Reena Virk—a British Columbian 14-year-old girl who was beaten and drowned in a saltwater inlet known as the Gorge Waterway—and the subsequent murder investigation, which resulted in the sentencing of six teenage girls and one boy. To adapt the story for television, series creator Quinn Shephard worked closely with Godfrey in the years leading up to Godfrey’s death from lung cancer in October 2022, and, per The Wrap, Godfrey herself opted for Daisy Jones and the Six actress Riley Keough to portray her in the Hulu adaptation.

The series pulls the bulk of its plot and characters from Godfrey’s investigation (her book, as well as her various notes and transcripts), and from a memoir published by Reena’s father, Manjit Virk, in 2008. But Shephard and her collaborators are transparent about the numerous fictionalized and invented details within the show, including changed names, shuffled timelines, and a cop character played by Killers of the Flower Moon actress Lily Gladstone. As Shephard told in an exclusive first look at the show, the writers had “a lot of conversations about responsible fictionalization. How could we tell a story that felt like it spoke to a universal truth about being a child when we were missing certain details? But we still wanted [Reena] to feel like a meaningful character in the series.”

Although the series never purports to display a full, 100-percent accurate portrait of Reena’s death, it is nevertheless worth parsing the details of the case to better understand where the show delves into creative license. Ahead, a few important questions to consider when separating the fact from the fictionalized in Under the Bridge.

Who was the real Reena Virk?

Reena, daughter of Manjit Virk and Suman Virk, was a student at Colquitz Junior Secondary in Victoria, British Columbia. In her book, Godfrey described Reena as possessing “a rare combination of boldness and innocence,” and that she was “dark skinned and heavy in a town and time that valued the thin and the blonde.” She was the daughter of an Indian immigrant, Manjit, and an Indo-Canadian, Suman, whose family had converted from Hinduism to the Jehovah’s Witness faith soon after Reena’s grandmother, Tarsem, first arrived in Canada. Reena, at 14, liked Biggie and Bollywood movies.

According to Godfrey, Reena “had announced that she did not want to be a Jehovah’s Witness any longer” by the time of her death, and had rebelled against the rules of her household by skipping meals, smoking cigarettes, changing her clothes, and running away from home. When the Associated Press first reported on Reena’s “grisly” murder, it cited a person “close to the victim’s family,” who “described Ms. Virk as an occasional runaway who did not get along well with her parents.” In the same story, Manjit told the AP that his daughter’s “biggest problem was her associations, her friends.”

vritika gupta as reena virk in hulu's under the bridge

Bettina Strauss

Under the Bridge executive producer Samir Mehta told he was intrigued by the project, in part, because of “the opportunity to tell the story of an Indian child of an immigrant. It’s an interesting opportunity to just dig into that dynamic, which I feel like we haven’t really seen a lot of on TV.”

Who killed Reena Virk?

Reena’s official cause of death was drowning. The following account is outlined in Godfrey’s book: On Friday, November 14, 1997, teenagers Josephine and Dusty (both pseudonyms employed by Godfrey) invited Reena to a party. Reena agreed to attend—though she hesitated, as she’d recently been caught spreading rumors about Josephine—and told her family she’d return by 10 P.M.

That evening, the trio joined a much larger group of students on a field at Shoreline School, where they watched a Russian satellite explode in the sky at 9:12 P.M. Soon after the unexpected light show, a girl whom Godfrey referred to as “Laila” walked onto the field and announced she’d been called upon to “fight a girl.” Reena, guessing Josephine had brought in Laila to exact retribution for the rumors, started to run.

A number of girls caught up with Reena, and they tore up her bus pass as she called her little brother from a phone booth, telling him she’d be home soon. The girls then pulled Reena down under the bridge along the Gorge Waterway, where Josephine reportedly screamed at Reena for “trying to ruin my life.” She then held her lit cigarette against Reena’s forehead, igniting the fight that would eventually end Reena’s life.

Although Godfrey reports there were 14 girls and two boys under the bridge that night, a handful of them actively participated in beating Reena. Laila eventually broke up the fight, leaving Reena alone and bleeding. As the first three episodes of Under the Bridge depict, an injured-but-alive Reena initially walked away from the scene, only to be followed by two teenagers—Kelly Marie Ellard and Warren Glowatski—who continued the brutal attack. At the water’s edge, Kelly then held Reena’s head underwater and drowned her.

Six girls, including Josephine, Dusty, and Kelly, were sentenced for their involvement in the assault. Warren and Kelly were eventually convicted of second-degree murder.

What are the real names of the perpetrators in the murder of Reena Virk?

In Under the Bridge, both the book and show, a number of names are changed, including for the characters of Josephine (played by Chloe Guidry) and Dusty (played by Aiyana Goodfellow). The real names of the girls involved—apart from Kelly Marie Ellard (played by Izzy G.), whose real name is used—were Nicole Cook, Missy Grace Pleich, Nicole Patterson, Gail Ooms, and Courtney Keith. Warren Glowatski’s real name is used in both the book and show.

Why is author Rebecca Godfrey such a major character in Under the Bridge?

In her book, Godfrey rarely mentions herself; she is not a character in the story, let alone a major one. As the author told The Believer in 2019, “I don’t know if it was an issue of ego, or an artistic choice, but either way, I didn’t think my role as reporter was interesting or necessary. I suppose I was also skittish about the parallels with my own life. I didn’t want to talk about my brother’s death or my own troubled adolescence in Victoria.”

In the series, Keough is one of the lead actresses, and a significant amount of screen time is spent focusing specifically on Godfrey’s role in the story, including her background as a kid in Victoria and her real-life brother’s drowning. As Shephard told, Godfrey helped the adaptation team develop the fictionalized “TV Rebecca” in order to “make her into a dynamic leading character.”

riley keough as rebecca godfrey in hulu's under the bridge

Darko Sikman

Shephard similarly told The Wrap that she’d come up with the idea of fictionalizing Godfrey before she’d even had a chance to meet the author. The series creator shared that making Godfrey a character was integral to not only “explor[ing] the book,” but also to “zoom out from it as the only definitive account of the crime.”

What happened to Rebecca’s real-life brother, Jonathan?

In the Hulu series, Keough’s Godfrey refers multiple times to her late brother, Gabe, and his tragic death. This, too, is pulled from reality: The real-life Godfrey’s brother was named Jonathan, and when he was 16, he “fell from a bluff near [the family’s] home and drowned,” per Godfrey’s New York Times obituary.

“I had a fraught and very difficult teenage experience—my brother drowned when I was thirteen,” she told The Believer. “I went a little wild after that and lost interest in high school, and got into the punk scene in downtown Victoria. Being in that scene was great because I could hide behind this mask of anger and coolness and toughness, and think, ‘Oh, I look scary, so everyone will leave me alone.’ In retrospect, I’m sure I didn’t look as tough as I thought I did, but the music and that crowd was a good disguise.”

Who is Lily Gladstone’s character, Cam Bentland?

Police officer Cam Bentland is one of few entirely invented components in Under the Bridge. A composite character representing multiple police sources Godfrey worked with during her reporting, Cam is an Indigenous cop adopted by a white family, and her history with the “TV Rebecca” is a loaded one. Gladstone felt the character’s identity added a layer of nuance that the book itself had not addressed, as she told the New York Times: “The murder happened just by tribal land. The bridge connects the municipality to a reserve. So inherently, there’s a First Nations presence in the story. I thought it was a brilliant construction to have a First Nations, adopted cop, who feels compelled to Reena in a way that becomes clearer and clearer to her.”

This story will be updated as more episodes of Under the Bridge become available.

Watch Under the Bridge on Hulu

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