ONCE UPON A RIVER (2020)


 Greetings again from the  darkness. Haroula Rose is an extraordinary talent. She’s a singer, actor, writer, producer, and director, and she’s continuing to prove she’s very good at all of the above. This is her first time directing a feature length film, and she also adapted the screenplay from the popular 2011 novel written by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The film has a unique look and feel, yet is so accessible we are drawn in from the stunning opening shots.

Kenadi DelaCerna stars as Margo Crane, a teenage Native American living on the Stark River with her beloved father (Tatanka Means, “Banshee”). Taking place in 1977 rural Michigan, the film shows Margo’s father teaching her how to hunt and fish, and honing her sharpshooter eye with a rifle. We learn that a year ago, Margo’s mother left a note explaining that she had to “find” herself, though other rumors circulate through the small community. This abandonment is only the first of many unfortunate situations Margo must face. Two of these involve her father’s half-brother Cal (Coburn Goss, MAN OF STEEL), a demented, yet powerful man in town – and his two entitled sons. The most tragic event pushes 15 year old Margo to set off down the river by herself (with her “Annie Oakley” biography), in hopes of locating her mother.

At this point, it’s tempting to label this a ‘coming-of-age’ story, and while it is that, it’s also much more. Margo’s journey finds her crossing paths with Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), a Native American researching his roots, and Smoke (John Ashton, BEVERLY HILLS COP), a grumpy old codger with emphysema. In the simplest of terms, Margo is a teenage runaway, but there’s nothing simple about Margo. Along the way, she’s discovering life lessons and finding out what she’s really made of. One of the most stunning moments (and there are a few) occurs when Margo tracks down her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher, “True Blood”), and calls her out on the lie she told to “find” herself a shiny new life. When the mother asks Margo, if Cal ever asks about her, I nearly fell out of my chair. That line carries so much weight.

The cinematography from Charlotte Hornsby delivers the breathtaking beauty of nature, as well as the pain and intimacy of the characters. Even the music of Zac Rae follows the travails of Margo as she continues on. We are accustomed to seeing grizzled men living off the land and making their own way, but not teenage girls. The closest comparison I can come up with is Debra Granik’s superb 2010 WINTER’S BONE, which introduced many of us to Jennifer Lawrence. Here, it’s Kenadi DelaCerna, with her first acting credit, who carries a difficult film. It’s fascinating to watch her skin a rabbit and soon after, figure out that sometimes blood has nothing to do with family, and making the best choices can be quite challenging. It’s not a fast-moving film, but it’s one that will stick with you.

Available via Virtual Cinemas on October 2, 2020

watch the trailer

 

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