Review: Despite Some Clunky Moments, Once Upon a River Delivers a Beautifully Filmed Coming-of-Age Drama

On 2016’s “Margo,” Haroula Rose mournfully sings:

“Your daddy brought you to the ways of the wild / Your mother she left when you reached a certain height”

The song was inspired by the 15-year-old main character of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s 2011 novel Once Upon a River–– on “Margo,” Rose channels a maternal energy, at once deeply protective and amazed by the young woman. She continues:

“Your home is on the water / You are the river’s daughter / Now that you’ve learned how to kill / Can you ever be still?”

The song condenses Campbell’s 348-page tale into a 3-minute, 40-second melancholic ode; as a screenwriter and director, Rose displays the same narrative economy and warm affection in her film adaptation of Once Upon a River, which follows Margo as she flees her home in search of her mother in rural 1970s Michigan.  

Once Upon a River
Image courtesy of Film Movement

“Maybe what happened was bound to happen, like destiny” Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna) narrates in the film’s opening. That sense of uneasy fatalism catapults the story forward––after Margo is raped by her uncle, she seeks revenge by shooting him as he urinates outside a family party. When her father shows up moments later, mistaken as the one who fired on his half-brother, he is shot dead by Margo’s cousin. Once Upon a River situates Margo’s journey as a literal coming of age. She is thrust into adulthood by circumstances beyond her control, but Margo is uniquely equipped for life in the wild–– her father, who is Native American, taught her to hunt and fish, skills she uses as she evades law enforcement by boat on the titular river. 

Rose grounds much of Once Upon a River in the exploration of Margo’s dualities––she’s barely a teenager, but has seen enough violence and hardship for a lifetime; she’s part Native American but hardly knows anything about her heritage (when asked by a stranger what tribe she is from, Margo answers that she isn’t sure). And a sense of deep-seated racism runs through the film; it simmers beneath encounters Margo has with white relatives, one who calls her a “half Indian bastard.” 

The film develops mostly through quiet interludes, and Rose depicts the tranquil forests and waterways as places of escape and redemption. Margo encounters several strangers on her journey––most notably the emphysemic Smoke (John Ashton), a kind old-timer who takes her in––and the film is at its best when Rose gives her actors room to breathe in these scenes. A brief romance with Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), a Native American who picks Margo up as a hitchhiker, is particularly moving and tender. Rose is less confident when depicting moments of action, or intense drama. The inciting rape and scenes of violence that follow are captured with a brisk clunkiness; that awkward pacing reappears whenever Margo faces danger. And when she finally finds her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), the scene lands with an unsatisfying thud, despite the great work being done by both actresses.

But the brief stumbles don’t detract from the inherent beauty of the film––aided by Charlotte Hornsby’s gorgeous cinematography and a flickering score by Zac Rae, Rose depicts the autumn landscapes and warmly lit cabin interiors with an intuitive sense of composition and care. And anchored by Kenadi DelaCerna’s open-hearted, defiant turn as Margo, Once Upon a River ends on a note of hard-won optimism, as sweetly sad as the song inspired by the tale.

Once Upon a River is now available via Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema.

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Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

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