“You can kill me if you want. I kind of wish you would.”
Once Upon a River is a 92-minute, independent film that marks Haroula Rose’s debut as a feature film director, and an impressive first feature it is. Based on the novel published in 2011 by Bonnie Joe Campbell, a writer who has been a finalist both for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award, the film is highlighted by laconic, intense dialogue and a muted color palette that helps express the quiet desperation of the characters who eke out a hardscrabble living in rural Michigan. The film features Kenadi DelaCerna’s stunning performance as Margo Crane, a 15-year-old Native-American, the film’s protagonist, although the entire cast is excellent. Once Upon a River is a subdued film, where intricate traceries of feeling intersect to bring conflicted relationships to the forefront. They provide the center that complements the rustic river scenes that portray a natural word that is more submissive than vivid. One warning, however: If you require f/x flash and non-stop action to keep your eyeballs stuck to the screen, the narrative may be too low-key to maintain your attention. But this would be unfortunate. The film tells an American story in the tradition of Huck Finn or Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. Don’t be surprised if subtle literary references make their appearance. Margo’s boat is named River Rose and the production company responsible for the film is Riverrun.
Margo’s life in her economically-strained, tightly-knit community is disrupted when she becomes entwined in a family tragedy. This prompts her to escape, and to travel upriver on a journey to find her estranged mother, the only family she has. This is a film that portrays an individual in nature, but eschews panoramic travelogue styled shots. Instead, the camera remains at eye level, and much of the cinematography is composed of medium shots to retain a focus on family dynamics and other forms of personal interaction. That Margo won’t play teenage games with her cousins indicates early on that she is independent minded, a young grown-up that has lived her life among confused, dissatisfied school kids and their parents that are equally astray. However, once Margo embarks on her quest, she seems more in harmony with her element. The solitary teenager finds temporary guardians, who, unlike the locals from whom she is taking flight, treat her with respect and accept her “tomboy” ways. These traits include being a crack shot with a rifle and proficiency with living off the land.
The film is a quiet one with a conventional quest structure, but the story alone would not make this a successful film without the strength of its acting, and it seems clear that Haroula Rose is an actor’s director (she is also a singer/songwriter). Tatanka Means (“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”) is perfect as Margo’s troubled, vacillating alcoholic father, and Lindsay Pulsipher (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” TV series) is aptly guilt-ridden and conflicted as the mother that abandoned her. Margo finds an unlikely champion in Smoke, a 70-something codger, played to sourpuss perfection by John Ashton (“The Neighborhood”) and complemented by his more practically minded pal, Fishbone (Kenn E. Head, “Brat 2”). In an ironic twist, the two senior citizens brighten up the screen despite their bickering. More important for Margo is that they respect her independence and strength. In this regard, Once Upon a River isn’t so much a coming of age story as it is a tale of finding your roots in unforeseen ways.
Quest stories have a long tradition, but the film fulfills its artistic ends because, as Ezra Pound said, the role of art is “to make it new.” And Once Upon a River does.