Even then, they weren't really kids: It was 1978, and the young men thin and muscular as whippets and the bright, vivacious women with their perfect skin were pushing 30, or past it. But they worked as river guides where the Colorado flowed and roared through the Grand Canyon. They lived communally, with little time for calendars. They played naked. And on one of their last trips together one of them, Rob Moss, shot film and captured audio that, 20 years later, five others catch up with in Moss's affecting documentary The Same River Twice.
There's mom and aerobics instructor Danny, still slim and beautiful at 48, identifying herself in the old footage in a glimpse of naked boob. There's Jim, an unreconstructed hippie whom Danny still calls "the greatest summer boyfriend anybody could have." ("I think procrastination is underrated," observes Jim, who remains a river guide.) Cathy Golden, the longtime mayor of Ashland, Ore., is sparked by Moss' footage to recall how much she loved her now ex-husband, Jeff Golden, himself a former politician and currently an earnest eco-novelist and radio talk-show host. And Barry, a controlling small-town mayor running for re-election with a wife, two kids and a cozily sloppy house, takes in the nudity Moss filmed and quips, "Back then, it didn't seem like you ever needed a reason to take your clothes off. You needed a reason to keep them on."
It's not too much to call Moss' original 16 mm color footage gorgeous -- it's artfully composed, with frolicsome nudity and thrilling whitewater rafting -- or unfair to note that the digitally shot contemporary sequences have the grainy plainness of home video. But The Same River Twice is no mere nostalgia piece. True to its title, it's a bittersweet meditation on time and the river flowing: what they bring, how we measure them, and how we take stock of what we've done with our lives.
In the course of the reunion of past and present Moss organizes, someone gets cancer; someone else remarries; and Danny, watching videos of their old selves, sighs, "We had nothing but time." Some of the film's subjects (who were among 17 original rafters) opine that way back then they were "disengaged" with the world, and subsequently went about making up for it. But Moss lets Barry -- the character who seems to develop most in the course of the film -- set the accepting philosophical tone: In your youth, it's the psychotropic turquoise of the river in canyon shadow; in middle age, the backlit static of a suburban strip mall. And, in their times, perhaps one is just as appropriate as the other.