Based on the best-selling novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, ‘Once Upon a River‘ could easily be described as a less gritty ‘Winter’s Bone‘. Haroula Rose directs Kenadi DelaCerna as a young woman in search of her estranged mother. This dramatic tale about facing your fears, your past and choosing your own family and destiny in life is something that’ll touch a lot of viewers.
The barely talkative 15-year-old Margo Crane (DelaCerna) hasn’t had the easiest childhood. It’s the late 1970s in rural Michigan, and this young Indigenous girl is growing up fast, too fast. Living with her dad, she’s learned how to hunt for food and stay out of trouble, but after a series of horrific tragedies, she sets out in search of herself on the Stark River, meeting characters along the way that’ll help her find her own path in life.
The film starts off strong, menacing in a way. Margo lives in a hostile environment, where white privilege and power abuse seem like the most normal thing. As soon as she flees that prison and connects with the freedom of nature, the film gets a more amicable vibe turning the story in a touching coming-of-age story.
There’s a few particular scenes that are severely troubling, especially when you keep Margo’s age in mind. Drugs, sexual abuse and manipulation take turns, until she finds peace with an elderly sick man called Smoke (John Ashton – ‘Gone Baby Gone‘), who slowly but surely becomes her best friend. It’s mainly this on screen friendship that tugs at your heartstrings. DelaCerna and Ashton are the highlights in this already strong ensemble, both portraying their characters with professional finesse. This has to do with the look in their eyes. The age difference between the two is visible, but where Smoke is an actual man of age, Margo gives off an overpowering old-soul-vibe.
Rose’s directorial feature debut isn’t your typical coming-of-age story, nor is it your typical drama. She borrows bits and pieces from each sub-genre, while creating her own authentic fearless story. The scenery, set design and gorgeous cinematography are of a certain quality, that makes ‘Once Upon a River‘ memorable and atmospheric. Rural Michigan looks a lot more inviting than it has any right to be.
‘Once Upon a River‘ takes its time to step away from formulaic genre tropes, with a profoundly tender performance by breakthrough star Kenadi DelaCerna as the cherry on top. Never overwhelming in balancing modesty and grace, ‘Once Upon a River‘ takes us on a quietly-powerful journey inwards.
In Virtual Cinemas Beginning October 2, 2020
Review – ‘Once Upon A River’
Reviewed online (screener provided by publicist), September 28, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 92 min.
PRODUCTION: A Film Movement release of a Chicago Media Angels, Thirty Tigers, Neon Heart Productions, Shawnee Lane production in association with River Run Films. Producers: Jacqueline “JJ” Ingram, Haroula Rose, Grace Hahn. Executive producer: Susan Berghoef, Julian West, David Macias, Ted Reilly, Kelly Aisthorpe Waller, Rhianon Jones, Sam Bisbee, Ian Keiser, Heather Rae.
CREW: Director/screenplay: Haroula Rose (based on the novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell). Editing: Sofi Marshall, Steven Lambiase. Cinematography: Charlotte Hornsby. Score: Zac Rae.
WITH: Kenadi DelaCerna, Tatanka Means, Coburn Goss, Sam Straley, Josephine Decker, Arie Thompson, Dominic Bogart, Lindsay Pulsipher, Ajuawak Kapashesit, John Ashton, Kenn E. Head.
COVER PHOTO: Kenadi DelaCerna as Margo Crane.
Once Upon A River arrives in virtual cinemas beginning October 2, 2020 from Film Movement.
CREDIT: Daniel Klutznick