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Once Upon a River (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

ONCE UPON A RIVER (2019)

Once Upon a River

Starring Kenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuawak Kapashesit, Sam Straley, Coburn Goss, Lindsay Pulsipher, Kenn E. Head, Dominic Bogart, Arie Thompson, Josephine Decker, Kayla Frischkorn, Peter Anthimos Thomson, Nicholas Kleon Thomson, Evan Linder, H.B. Ward, Bradley Grant Smith, Shane Simmons, Jules Reid, Angela Rak and Claudia Church.

Screenplay by Haroula Rose.

Directed by Haroula Rose.

Distributed by Film Movement. 92 minutes. Not Rated.

Written and directed by Haroula Rose, Once Upon A River is the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by the same name, written by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The film has won 18 awards in the film festival circuit, and has an unlikely, crack-shot, youthful heroine, who emulates Annie Oakley and has the skills to match.

15-year-old Margo Crane (played by the haunting Kenadi DelaCerna) lives with her father, Bernard (played by Tatanka Means). They are part of a company town, run by Cal (played by Coburn Goss), who is as slimy as you can imagine a man in a position of power can be in small town Michigan in the late 1970’s.

Bernard has stepped into sobriety for his single father role. He is a man known for his integrity. He has raised Margo on the river, teaching her how to be strong and survive. These are skills that don’t serve her well in her small town under Cal’s rule, because while he is impressed with her skill, he really is a scumbag who has no issue with statutory rape. When he’s caught in the act, he (unsurprisingly) turns it against Margo. She eventually lashes out with yet another bad choice, that ends in the death of her father.

Margo becomes a river fugitive, traveling by her small boat on the river with her rifle, few belongings, and the last known address of her mother. Eventually Cal’s evil spawn Billy Murray (played by Sam Straley) catches up to her on one of her re-supply stops, takes off with her boat forcing Margo to continue by foot.

She gets picked up by the handsome schoolteacher Will, who is written as kind, but in the end, is really just another statutory rapist. (Will is written as a lovely soul that Margo seems to fall for… but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s statutory rape again…). He leaves her with some cash, a note to encourage her to return to school, and a bun in the oven.

Margo continues on her journey and befriends the wheelchair-bound Smoke (played by John Ashton), an emphysemic old man with little capacity to manage his household. He quickly comes to realize that she is with-child. His once upon a time bandmate Fishbone (played by Kenn Head) agrees to take her to her mother’s address with hope that she will help Margo with her situation.

The narrative, like the river’s current, keeps moving forward, leaving behind characters that we barely get to know. Most of the time, that feels pretty okay. I didn’t want to spend any more time with Billy or Cal. There’s a duo on the river that share maybe five minutes in total of screen time, one with an eye patch. That left me wondering if they played more of a beloved role in the novel. Why else would they be mentioned but take up so little story in the film?

While I truly appreciated the beautiful cinematography and the character growth and bond between Margo and Smoke, the rest of the characters felt far less developed. Their stories, even when pivotal to keep the story moving forward, felt like a whole lot of background noise.

I am interested to see what the director tackles next and look forward to better-developed projects focused on Native American characters – particularly warrior women characters like Margo – in the future.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 2, 2020.

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