(director/writer: Haroula Rose; screenwriters: book by Bonnie Jo Campbell; cinematographer: Charlotte Hornsby; editors: Sofi Marshall/Steven Lambiase; music: Zac Rae; cast:  Kenadi DelaCerna (Margo Crane), John Ashton (Smoke), Tatanka Means (Bernard Crane), Ajuwak Kapashesit (Will), Kenn E. Head (Fishbone), Lindsay Pulsipher (Luanne), Dominic Bogart (Brian), Evan Linder (Paul), Sam Straley (Billy),  Coburn Goss (Cal Murray); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Haroula Rose/Jacqueline E. Ingram; Film Movement; 2019)

“At best adequate as an adventure story.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The feature-length directorial debut of the female filmmaker Haroula Rose is at best adequate as an adventure story. It’s adapted from the same named 2011 novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The coming-of-age story is set over a tragedy that requires further action. The film is envisioned as a female “Huckleberry Fin” one.

Margo Crane (
Kenadi DelaCerna) is a Native American teenager in 1977, who lives in a cabin with her father Bernard (Tatanka Means) in rural Michigan. She thinks of herself as someone who shares a similar shooting expertise as Annie Oakley.

When Margo learns of
the death of her father Bernard, she must take her family canoe down the Stark River to find her estranged mother Luanne (Lindsay Pulsipher), who abandoned them for reasons never made clear.

Margo is no angel. She had sex with her oily uncle Cal Murray Coburn Goss). That situation led to Bernard killing Cal, and Cal’s angry son Billy (Sam Straley) retaliating by killing Bernard. At first Margo turns for help to the robust Brian (Dominic Bogart), but when his inferior friend Paul (Evan Linder) shows up, she thinks better of it and moves on alone.  Luckily she takes her rifle along, which she uses to hunt for food and protection.

Downriver she meets the polite Will ( Ajuwak Kapashesit), who is heading by boat to a teaching post.  She shares a meal with him and makes love with him. Which will reveal her to be pregnant later on. 

On the river again, she comes to the creepy trailer of Smoke (John Ashton), an elderly man who is ill. His pragmatic friend Fishbone (Kenn E. Head) advises her to move on.  But she stays for a while taking care of Smoke, until leaving the grateful man.

She journeys further down river and finds her selfish mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), who tries to explain but not too lucidly her abandonment of the family.

The newcomer DelaCerna, in her first starring role, gives a stoical performance but it fails to convince us of her growing pains and how deeply affected she is by her situation. It’s a downer film, that never gets over its melancholy even if its situation gets resolved in the climax.

The most likeable river character is Fishbone (Kenn E. Head), someone who is good person and has good sense of humor.The low-budget, episodic film has a few good moments, but its drama is a meandering one that ultimately fails to be moving. 

      DelaCerna in Once Upon a River (2019)

REVIEWED ON 10/16/2020  GRADE: C+