Based on the novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River is the coming-of-age tale of a young woman in search of belonging. On the trail of her estranged mother, there is both beauty and danger to be found along the titular river that heroine Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna) journeys on. There’s a good bit to admire in director Haroula Rose’s debut feature, but the story’s second half falls apart, and the remaining pieces don’t end up feeling conclusive enough.
Set in 1977 Michigan, Margo is a Native American teenager living with her single dad in a rural and rather gloomy looking town. It’s a company town, where big business has drained the land not just of its life and color, but of the decency of its residents as well. Margo and her father, Bernard (Tatanka Means, son of the prominent Native American activist Russell Means), are outliers among the predominantly white and small-minded settlement, making life rougher than it already is.
Margo initially feels resentment for her long-gone mother, who left her family years ago for reasons unknown, and has been trying as best she can to make a life for herself here. But after a slew of traumas, she finally begins to understand why her mother would want to leave this place, and embarks on a personal quest to find her. There’s plenty of self-discovery to be found along the way, met with danger, friends, and even romance.
Rose has a firm grasp of visual storytelling; the lush, vibrant, and natural scenery of the riverside stands in stark contrast to the bleak and lifeless town. One location signifies hope while the other offers nothing but misery. There is obvious respect and attention put towards the beliefs and values of the Native American people, specifically their close ties to nature. The film’s tone often resembles young adult fiction such as True Grit or The Hunger Games, which makes for an interesting bit of social commentary. It’s common for that genre to take place in dystopian police states, but for a young Native American like Margo, the United States is already that.
Margo herself is a unique protagonist. She’s someone of very few words and is mostly silent throughout Once Upon a River, but DelaCerna plays her with plenty of thought and emotion going on behind her eyes. You can tell her that her mind is constantly in motion, and despite her silence, Margo still controls the flow of the story. Her decisions and actions drive the narrative, while the rest of the cast provide the energy needed to keep things entertaining.
But after a solid first half, Once Upon a River loses itself on the path. Margo’s journey never feels like it takes her very far, in fact, she seems to settle down in the first stop of her trek. By the film’s end, she’s left in a place of stronger confidence and self-assurance, but her situation feels anything but resolved. The story winds up feeling inconclusive to the point that audiences will likely be asking “Well, now what?”, only for the credits to start rolling. There is also a negatively skewed depiction of a Planned Parenthood that feels like it’s presented in bad faith, and it takes away from a pivotal scene that would otherwise work.
Once Upon a River is a win for representation and a mindful portrayal of the Native American experience and their values. The river is a lovely symbol of inner peace and rebirth, and the film is able to get this point across rather elegantly. But the actual narrative and its structure get lost along the way, and it makes for a rather unfulfilling viewing experience.