Film Movement Movie Review: Once Upon a River (2019)

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Growing up in central Michigan in 1977 along the fictional Stark River, fifteen-year-old Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) knows two things. A crack shot, after only a few minutes of screen time, we see in Margo a girl who knows how to live off the land – with or without the help of her doting father (Tatanka Means) or flattering uncle (Coburn Goss). Unfortunately, what she also knows is just how much she misses her mom who walked out on her and her father several years earlier. And sadly, her ache for a female role model seems to be at its strongest now that she's on the cusp of womanhood. 

In fact, it's a sentiment that's relayed to us in Margo's opening voiceover, but even without hearing her say those words, we can see this longing both in her body language and her uncertainty as she puts on red lipstick before a party but then self-consciously rubs it off before she leaves the bathroom. A beautiful girl who – as we all did at that age – drinks up the attention given to her by men since she's still testing the waters of her own power and burgeoning sexuality, unfortunately rather than have someone to discuss all of these conflicting feelings with, she is left to navigate this path on her own. 

Ushered into a physical relationship by someone she thought she trusted before she could back up, take a breath, and say no, this startling event is followed by something even more devastating. Soon Margo decides to pack her things and go far away from the only town she's ever known, in the hopes of finding the mom who'd wandered away to find herself so many years before. 

Based upon the eponymous novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, “Once Upon a River” – which marks the feature filmmaking debut from producer, actress, and musician Haroula Rose – belongs to that distinctly American subgenre of adolescent odysseys, best epitomized by Mark Twain's “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” A young adult version of a western and one that feels like it would play nicely in a thematic film festival alongside “The Journey of Natty Gann,” “Lean on Pete,” “Leave No Trace,” “The Cold Lands,” and “Winter's Bone,” to its slight detriment, “River” fails to overcome the genre's biggest hurdle.

Largely solitary efforts – often about young Woody Guthrie types taking to the open road (or the river) – in order to avoid making a modern-day silent movie, films in this category routinely sprinkle in quirky new characters for our leads to befriend throughout. “Once Upon a River,” is no exception to the rule. All too frequently, it feels as though you can set your watch to when it's just about time for Margo to swap one place and/or person for another, including the scene-stealing John Ashton as a kindly old man she encounters early on. 

Yet even though the movie isn't as wholeheartedly successful or emotionally all-encompassing as, say, “Lean on Pete” and “Leave No Trace” (easily two of the greatest films of this type in recent memory), it's quite compelling nonetheless. Especially unique given the fact that it centers on a headstrong young woman who goes searching for one thing but winds up finding herself, "River" rushes through a few pointed turns of events that don't land quite as well as they should without focusing on the why and how our young protagonist is processing them the way that she does.

Still, what it lacks in structure and nuance, it makes up for in its exceptional technical craftsmanship. Well-acted by talented newcomer DelaCerna, and shot with tenderness and a lived-in sensibility by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, which makes the film resemble an old '70s era home movie, “Once Upon a River” is a worthwhile journey all the same.

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