Once Upon a River
After a series of traumatic events rips her life apart, Native-American teenager Margo (newcomer Kenadi DelaCerna) decides to head out in search for her estranged mother. Using the Stark River as her highway, she embarks on an odyssey of discovery and growth as encounters with strangers lead to strong friendships that will change her forever.
Writer-director Haroula Rose weaves a compassionate and sublime coming-of-age tale in her feature debut Once Upon a River (adapted from the novel of the same name by Bonnie Jo Campbell). Much of the atmosphere is generated from the lush and tranquil setting of the Michigan countryside Margo journeys through, which acts as a fitting symbol for her endeavours. Its peaceful stillness plays counterpoint to the chaos that caused her troubles to begin with – and the gentle flow of the river matches her gradual progress to her destination, wherever that may be. Everything about how Rose presents the landscape is an invitation for viewers to immerse themselves in it and venture forth down the river with Margo.
Even more stunning than the picturesque countryside is DelaCerna’s shining performance. The young actor shows talent far beyond her years. She navigates devastating hardships as naturally as her character does the river. There’s rarely a scene that passes that she’s not in and she carries each one with compassion and depth to captivating effect. The supporting cast is rounded out with an impressive ensemble, though it’s John Ashton as gruff old-timer Smoke who stands out as a memorable highlight.
There’s no shortage of talent and heart found within Rose’s debut. It comes as a disappointment that there’s not enough time spent exploring key relationships for the full effect of Margo’s journey to be felt. This is a particular issue regarding the teenager’s connection with Smoke, who has a pivotal role to play later in the film. Despite the touching rapport shared by DelaCerna and Ashton, little attention is given to their emerging friendship or even of the kindly old man. Had greater care been given to exploring this vital component, the payoff would have been much more satisfying.
Despite the sizeable setback in the final act, Once Upon a River is an affectionate coming-of-age tale that showcases promising debuts from both its filmmaker and leading performer.
Once Upon a River is released digitally on demand on 7th May 2021.
Watch the trailer for Once Upon a River here: